Vietnamese migrants found dead in Essex lorry killed by 'greedy' people smugglers, court hears

‘I can’t breathe. I’m sorry… It’s all my fault’: Dying Vietnamese migrants recorded harrowing final messages for their families on their phones before being found dead in lorry in Essex, court hears

  • Eamonn Harrison, 23, and Gheorghe Nica, 43, are accused of killing migrants
  • Men, woman and children found dead in a trailer near Grays in October 2019
  • Valentin Calota, 37, and Christopher Kennedy, 24, are alleged to have assisted
  • Victims as young as 15 had paid up to GBP10,000 each for the journey, court told 

By Mark Duell for MailOnline

Published: 12:02, 9 October 2020 | Updated: 14:22, 9 October 2020

A suffocating Vietnamese migrant locked inside a refridgerated lorry trailer in Essex recorded a harrowing final message to tell his family he was ‘sorry’ before he died, a court heard today.  

The chilling voice message was sent by Nguyen Tho Tuan, 25, for his wife, children and mother from inside the trailer, which was later found near Grays.

His final words to his family were: ‘I am sorry.

I cannot take care of you. I cannot breathe. Have a good life’, before the phone signal cut out.

Eamonn Harrison, 23, and Gheorghe Nica, 43, are accused of killing the men, women and children found dead in the trailer on October 23 last year.

Valentin Calota, 37, and Christopher Kennedy, 24, are also alleged to have assisted in the global smuggling ring, driving ‘desperate’ economic migrants into the UK.

The victims – including eight women and ten teenagers, the youngest of whom were two boys aged 15 – had paid up to GBP10,000 each for the journey, the court was told.

During another dramatic day of court proceedings at the Old Bailey: 

  • The victims were locked in the lorry in temperatures of more than 100F (38C);
  • A port worker who moored the container noticed a ‘pungent’ smell like ‘waste’;
  • The dying migrants tried to smash their way out of the trailer using a metal pole;
  • The smugglers knew it was a ‘very grave risk’ by loading the trailer with migrants;
  • Police found ‘numerous half naked bodies on the floor’ amid a ‘terrible smell’.

Prosecutors at the Old Bailey in London claim Irish truck driver Harrison drove the trailer to the Belgian port of Zeebrugge before it sailed to Purfleet in Essex and was picked up by trucker Maurice Robinson, 26, from County Armagh.

Robinson and his haulier boss Ronan Hughes, 40, have admitted the 39 counts of manslaughter which Harrison and British-Romanian alleged ringleader Nica deny. 

Police and forensic officers at the Waterglade Industrial Park in Grays, Essex, on October 23, 2019 after 39 bodies of Vietnamese migrants were found inside the lorry on the estate

Vietnamese migrants found dead in Essex lorry killed by 'greedy' people smugglers, court hears

Lorry driver Maurice Robinson (pictured), 26, has already admitted 39 counts of manslaughter

In court today, jurors heard the recording made by Nguyen Tho Tuan at 7.37pm said: ‘It’s Tuan.

I am sorry. I cannot take care of you. I am sorry.

I am sorry. I cannot breathe. I want to come back to my family.

Have a good life.’

Prosecutor Bill Emlyn Jones said that Mr Tuan’s message was addressed to his wife, children and mother.

Vietnamese migrants found dead in Essex lorry killed by 'greedy' people smugglers, court hears

Lorry driver Eamonn Harrison, 23, of County Down, is charged with manslaughter

Another male victim made a recording saying: ‘I can’t breathe. I’m sorry. I have to go now,’ adding after a long pause: ‘It’s all my fault.’

Moments later, another voice could be heard saying: ‘He’s dead,’ the prosecutor said.

The temperature had leapt to 35C (95F) by 6.25pm, and the court was shown photographs taken by 26-year-old Pham Thi Tra My after the heat began to reach the ‘unbearable’ highs.

By 6.59pm, another victim had attempted to call emergency services, the court heard.

The prosecutor said that the air in the trailer would have become ‘toxic’ after about nine hours of confinement, and migrants would have started dying shortly after – at around 10pm to 10.30pm.

Cellsite data from the victims’ phones placed them in various locations around Brussels and Paris the day before they died, suggesting they travelled northbound to the Belgian border.

Vietnamese migrants found dead in Essex lorry killed by 'greedy' people smugglers, court hears Vietnamese migrants found dead in Essex lorry killed by 'greedy' people smugglers, court hears

Pham Tra My (left and right) 26, was among the 39 people who died in the lorry in Grays, Essex

Vietnamese migrants found dead in Essex lorry killed by 'greedy' people smugglers, court hears Vietnamese migrants found dead in Essex lorry killed by 'greedy' people smugglers, court hears

Nguyen Huy Hung (left), 15, was the youngest, while Nguyen Dinh Lurong (right), 20, also died

Harrison then arranged to meet the migrants at Chemin Noord Straete, France, where they arrived in taxis and hid in an ‘agricultural shed’ until he collected them, jurors heard.

Harrowing messages recorded by migrants within the lorry

  • ‘I can’t breathe.

    I’m sorry. I have to go now… It’s all my fault.’

  • ‘It’s Tuan.

    I am sorry. I cannot take care of you. I am sorry.

    I am sorry. I cannot breathe. I want to come back to my family.

    Have a good life.’  

Passerby Laetitia Mockelyn witnessed the rendezvous, seeing the Vietnamese nationals ‘run into’ their temporary shelter before jumping into the back of a lorry shortly after, it was said.

‘There was an eye-witness to these events. Laetitia Mockelyn saw something of what happened in Chemin Noord Straete. She thought this was at about 10.35am,’ Mr Emlyn Jones said.

‘She saw a vehicle like a van with a taxi sign.

The occupants of the taxi were dropped off and ran into an agricultural shed.

‘She then saw the lorry arrive, and the same people ran out of the shed and climbed into the back of the lorry, which then drove away again.

‘She refers to the people she saw as ‘migrants,’ because no doubt what was going on was obvious.’

Mr Emlyn Jones added: ‘At 8.02pm a video file was recorded using a mobile phone. The screen is in darkness.

‘A male voice says ‘I can’t breathe.’ He then stated his own name and address, and went on: ‘I can’t breathe. I’m sorry.

I have to go now’.

‘There is at least one other voice audible in the background. In a second video file on the same handset, recorded a minute later, the same voice repeats that he is sorry, and after a long pause adds ‘It’s all my fault.’.

Dying migrants tried to smash their way out of the trailer using a metal pole, court hears

The dying migrants tried to smash their way out of the trailer using a metal pole but failed because there was ‘no one to hear them and no one to help them,’ the court heard.

Police found evidence that the 39 victims had made desperate efforts to escape while they were on the cargo ship in the middle of the night, the court heard.

Prosecutor Mr Emlyn Jones said: ‘That metal post was the only thing in there with them. During the crossing, it looks as if in their desperation, they had tried to use it to bash their way out – but without success.

‘But just as their attempts with their phones, their attempts to bash their way out were not successful, because there was on that boat in the middle of the night, no-one to hear them and no one to help them.’

Robinson ‘smashed up’ his burner phone and dumped it down a drain in a bid to hide evidence from the police while Nica did a ‘runner,’ the court heard.

The killer, who has admitted 39 counts of manslaughter, allegedly attempted to destroy his ‘dirty’ phone after he made the appalling discovery in the back of his lorry.

He shared one final phone call with Nica on the pay-as-you-go handsets before both men chucked them away, it was said.

‘Police later found bits of [Robinson’s] phone down a drain, and other bits of it nearby,’ the prosecutor said. ‘He had smashed it up and got rid of it.’

Accused ‘ring leader’ Nica fled the country, booking a flight from Luton to Romania on the same day the migrants were found dead, the court heard.

‘For good measure Gheorge Nica didn’t just dump his burner phone, he fled the country,’ the prosecutor said.

‘He was booked on a flight from London Luton to Romania, leaving at 20.55pm.

This is the day of the discovery of the deaths and Nica has done a runner.’

He was eventually arrested at Frankfurt Airport in Germany on 29 January and extradited to the UK on 7 February.

Harrison was detained in Dublin Port on a European Arrest Warrant three days after the tragedy, while Kennedy was arrested on the M40 on 22 November.

Kennedy answered questions in his police interview, claiming he had picked up a load on 18 October and found ‘bottles of urine and bags of rubbish,’ the court heard.

He denied any knowledge of the conspiracy.

‘After that, another voice can be heard: ‘He’s dead.’ The temperature was still rising and by 9.02pm it had reached 38C (100F).

‘Laura Martin, a forensic scientist and expert in Occupational Hygiene and Health and Safety has calculated the length of time 39 adults could spend in the confined and airtight trailer before the atmosphere became toxic.

‘She estimates that after eight-and-a-half to nine hours after the trailer was sealed shut for the final time, the toxic threshold would have been reached, which would have resulted in deaths occurring shortly thereafter. That would equate to approximately 10pm to 10.30pm.

‘She is reinforced in that opinion by the fact that her estimate time of fatal atmospheric toxicity coincides with the temperature in the trailer reaching its peak of 38.5C (101.3F) between 9.42pm and 10.42pm, after which it began gradually to fall again.’

A port worker who moored the container of dying migrants noticed a ‘pungent’ smell ‘similar to waste,’ the court heard.

The Clementine – the cargo ship on which the trailer had sailed – docked at Purfleet just after midnight on October 23 and was picked up by Robinson at 1.07am.

The migrants are thought to have died at around 10pm to 10.30pm, the court heard.

Mr Emlyn Jones said: ‘We have the MV Clementine docking at Purfleet at 12.18am. Maurice Robinson had arrived at the port to collect it at a quarter to midnight.

‘It had been due to arrive at midnight, and was almost 20 minutes late, so he had to wait a bit.

‘After the trailer had been brought off the ship, Robinson picked it up and left the port with it at 1.07am, and in due course you will see some CCTV from the port confirming the details of Robinson picking [it] up.

‘Incidentally, a man called Jason Rook – a member of staff at the port – had been responsible for taking the trailers off the ship, and he had hooked up to [the trailer] in order to move it ashore.

‘When he left it in its waiting bay, he noticed a pungent smell, which he described as being ‘similar to waste’.’ 

The court also heard the people smugglers knew they were taking a ‘very grave risk’ by loading the trailer so heavily with migrants – but carried on anyway.

Robinson arranged to meet ‘ringleader’ Nica and another man, Marius Draghici, at the farm so that they could ferry the migrants down to Dulwich in south London, the court was told.

But instead of driving straight there, he parked up after receiving a Snapchat message from haulier boss Hughes telling him to: ‘Give them air quickly, but don’t let them out.’

Robinson simply responded with a ‘thumbs up,’ the court heard.

Mr Emlyn Jones said: ‘At some point between 1.12am, Ronan Hughes had sent Robinson a message via Snapchat.

‘For some reason, Robinson had taken a screenshot of this message and so it was recoverable from his phone.

‘This message, you may think, is revealing that the conspirators knew they had been taking a very grave risk by loading the trailer as full as they had.

Vietnamese migrants found dead in Essex lorry killed by 'greedy' people smugglers, court hears

Gheorghe Nica (left) and Eamonn Harrison (right), two of four men on trial at the Old Bailey in London, are pictured in a court sketch drawn on Wednesday by artist Elizabeth Cook

‘It says ‘Give them air quickly but don’t let them out’.

Robinson just gave a thumbs up. They were, of course, right to be concerned. However, they were much too late.’

Driver Robinson could not bear to look at the dead migrants, the court heard.

Who is charged with what in the lorry case? 

Eamonn Harrison, 23

  • Denies 39 counts of manslaughter
  • Denies conspiracy to assist unlawful immigration

Gheorghe Nica, 43

  • Denies 39 counts of manslaughter
  • Admits conspiracy to assist unlawful immigration

Valentin Calota, 37

  • Denies conspiracy to assist unlawful immigration

Christopher Kennedy, 24

  • Denies conspiracy to assist unlawful immigration

Maurice Robinson, 26

  • Admits 39 counts of manslaughter
  • Admits conspiracy to assist unlawful immigration

Ronan Hughes, 41

  • Admits 39 counts of manslaughter 
  • Admits conspiracy to assist unlawful immigration

He told emergency services: ‘I don’t really want to look in to be honest with you’ when asked to provide information about those that died in his lorry.

He waited more than 15 minutes after he opened up the rear doors to dial 999, first calling his boss Hughes and then ‘ringleader’ Nica, jurors heard.

When he finally asked for an ambulance, he said: ‘They’re all lying on the ground…

I heard a noise in the back.’

‘I’m a lorry driver. I’ve just lifted a trailer from the port. There’s loads of them.

There’s immigrants in the back. They’re all lying on the ground*.

‘I went and lifted a trailer from Purfleet, the freight terminal. I got round to where I was gonna park up from the night.

‘I heard the noise in the back and I opened up the door there’s a bunch of them lying.

The trailer’s jammed. There’s approximately 25. They’re not breathing.’

Mr Emlyn Jones told jurors: ‘The first thing Robinson did after opening the doors of the trailer was not to call 999.

‘The first call he made was to Ronan Hughes.

They spoke for 1 minute and 42 seconds.

‘Nica then rang Robinson, and they spoke for a minute. During the next 15 minutes, there was contact between Nica and Robinson, Hughes and Robinson….

‘For obvious reasons, those out by Collingwood Farm, waiting to collect the migrants from the lorry, abandoned the plan and left the area.

‘It was only at 1.36am that Robinson telephoned 999; he requested an ambulance.

‘He said: ‘I’m a lorry driver. I’ve just lifted a trailer from the port.

There’s loads of them. There’s immigrants in the back. They’re all lying on the ground.

I went and lifted a trailer from Purfleet, the freight terminal.

Vietnamese migrants found dead in Essex lorry killed by 'greedy' people smugglers, court hears

A court artist’s sketch drawn on Wednesday of Christopher Kennedy (left) and Valentin Calota (right), the other two men on trial at the Old Bailey in London

‘I got round to where I was gonna park up from the night. I heard the noise in the back and I opened up the door there’s a bunch of them lying. The trailer’s jammed.

There’s approximately 25. They’re not breathing.’

‘When asked to give more details of his location, all he could think to say was that he was near to an Ibis hotel.

‘When asked how old the patients were, Mr. Robinson said ‘I don’t really want to look in, to be honest with you.’ He said he believed the trailer had come from Zeebrugge.’

Police arrived to find the driver looking relaxed. ‘They saw Robinson apparently relatively calm,’ Mr Emlyn Jones said.

‘Inside they could see numerous half naked bodies on the floor, motionless, and there was also a terrible smell.

Vietnamese migrants found dead in Essex lorry killed by 'greedy' people smugglers, court hears

The 39 victims were were from five provinces in the central, coastal area of Vietnam and two provinces near Hanoi

‘They could find no pulse on anyone.

All of the people had stripped down to their underwear and their limbs had started to stiffen.’ 

The 39 men, women and children who died in Essex lorry tragedy 

  1. Dinh Dinh Binh, a 15-year-old boy from Hai Phong
  2. Nguyen Minh Quang, a 20-year-old man from Nghe An
  3. Nguyen Huy Phong, 35-year-old man from Ha Tinh
  4. Le Van Ha, a 30-year-old man from Nghe An
  5. Nguyen Van Hiep, a 24-year-old man from Nghe An
  6. Bui Phan Thang, a 37-year-old man from Ha Tinh
  7. Nguyen Van Hung, a 33-year-old man from Nghe An
  8. Nguyen Huy Hung, a 15-year-old boy from Ha Tin
  9. Nguyen Tien Dung, a 33-year-old man from Quang Binh
  10. Pham Thi Tra My, a 26-year-old woman from Ha Tinh
  11. Tran Khanh Tho, an 18-year-old man from Ha Tinh
  12. Nguyen Van Nhan, a 33-year-old man from Ha Tinh
  13. Vo Ngoc Nam, a 28-year-old man from Nghe An
  14. Vo Van Linh, a 25-year-old man from Ha Tinh
  15. Nguyen Ba Vu Hung, a 34-year-old man from Thua Tien Hue
  16. Vo Nhan Du, a 19-year-old man from Ha Tinh
  17. Tran Hai Loc, a 35-year-old man from Nghe An
  18. Tran Manh Hung, a 37-year-old man from Ha Tinh
  19. Nguyen Thi Van, a 35-year-old woman from Nghe An
  20. Bui Thi Nhung, a 19-year-old woman from Nghe An
  21. Hoang Van Tiep, an 18-year-old man from Nghe An
  22. Tran Thi Ngoc, a 19-year-old woman from Nghe An
  23. Phan Thi Thanh, a 41-year-old woman from Hai Phong
  24. Tran Thi Tho, a 21-year-old woman from Nghe An
  25. Duong Minh Tuan, a 27-year-old man from Quang Binh
  26. Pham Thi Ngoc Oanh, a 28-year-old woman from Nghe An
  27. Tran Thi Mai Nhung, an 18-year-old woman from Nghe An
  28. Le Trong Thanh, a 44-year-old man from Dien Chau
  29. Nguyen Ngoc Ha, a 32-year-old man from Quang Binh
  30. Hoang Van Hoi, a 24-year-old man from Nghe An
  31. Tran Ngoc Hieu, a 17-year-old boy from Hai Duong
  32. Cao Tien Dung, a 37-year-old man from Nghe An
  33. Dinh Dinh Thai Quyen, an 18-year-old man from Hai Phong
  34. Dong Huu Tuyen, a 22-year-old man from Nghe An
  35. Nguyen Dinh Luong, a 20-year-old man from Ha Tinh
  36. Cao Huy Thanh, a 37-year-old man from Nghe An
  37. Nguyen Trong Thai, a 26-year-old man from Nghe An
  38. Nguyen Tho Tuan, a 25-year-old man from Nghe An
  39. Nguyen Dinh Tu, a 26-year-old man from Nghe An

Earlier today, jurors heard that Robinson made the horrific discovery when he opened the rear doors of the truck moments after leaving the English dock to find the bodies in what had become their ‘tomb’.

Temperatures in the refrigerated trailer had allegedly soared to an ‘unbearable’ 38.5C (101.3F) as its cooler was turned off during the journey.

The smuggling plot operated on a ‘payment on delivery’ basis and he had been sent a message by Hughes saying: ‘Give them air quickly, but don’t let them out,’ the court heard.

Mr Jones told jurors today that the conspirators had carried out the journey successfully on numerous occasions until it went ‘dreadfully wrong.’

Harrison had been caught with illegal immigrants in the back of his truck in 2018 and issued a fine – which he never paid, the court was told.

And Kennedy had been waved on by French border officials when he tried to smuggle two of the Vietnamese migrants who died weeks later, it was said yesterday. 

The 20 foreign nationals were taken away by authorities during the trip on October 14 – while he had been allowed to continue along the Eurotunnel, jurors heard.

At least two of those on board tried again and were killed in the fatal journey nine days later.

But despite temperatures reaching highs of 25.2C (77.4F), a load of migrants was delivered to a remote drop-off point at Collingwood Farm in Essex during a second attempt on October 18.

Mr Emlyn Jones asked jurors to question whether – just six days later – the team had been ‘trying to do two loads in one’.

The prosecutor said: ‘We turn now to October 22 and 23 – when what should have been on the face of it an almost identical incident of people smuggling to those we have seen on 11 and 18.

But it turned to tragedy.

‘It may well have crossed your minds – why did this trip go so terrible wrong, when on the other occasions the migrants survived the trip and were safely unloaded at Collingwood Farm?

‘You may well conclude that is because this time, the criminals were simply too greedy, at GBP10,000 a head. 

‘So this time they simply had too many people on board – too many people loaded to a single trailer.

‘We know there was enough oxygen in the trailer for the 15 to 20 people inside the trailer on October 10 and 11 – and again on 17 and 18, when there must also have been fewer people inside.

‘We may not determine for sure because the people who know won’t say, but it might not be a coincidence that a lorry-load of migrants was detected on 14, when Kennedy was stopped at Coquelle, and 20 Vietnamese migrants were ejected.

‘We suggest the people smugglers from that consignment…

Were under pressure to double up?

‘Remember, at least two of those who were ejected, died on the night of October 22 and 23, so there is a connection. Were the team trying to do two loads in one?’ 

Harrison, from Mayobridge, County Down, denies 39 counts of manslaughter and conspiracy to assist unlawful immigration.

Nica, of Basildon, Essex, denies 39 counts of manslaughter but admits one of conspiring to assist unlawful immigration.

Kennedy, of Northern Ireland, and Calota, of Birmingham, each deny conspiring to assist unlawful immigration between May 1, 2018 and October 24, 2019.

The trial continues. 

You may also like...