Essex lorry victims 'shouted open up as they suffocated in container'

27 October 2020, 17:36

Screengrab taken from CCTV dated 22/10/19 issued by Essex Police showing Eamonn Harrison driving his lorry and trailer into truck stop in Belgium
Screengrab taken from CCTV dated 22/10/19 issued by Essex Police showing Eamonn Harrison driving his lorry and trailer into truck stop in Belgium. Picture: PA

By Matt Drake

The victims of the Essex lorry tragedy shouted "open up, open up" as they suffocated inside a sealed container bound for Britain, a court has heard.

On October 23 last year 39 migrants were found dead in the trailer after it was transported from Zeebrugge in Belgium to Purfleet in Essex.

The Old Bailey has heard how the men, women and children, aged 15 to 44, suffocated in temperatures of up to 38.5C (101.3F) in the pitch dark interior.

On Tuesday, jurors heard how the trailer was loaded onto the Clementine at the port of Zeebrugge at 3pm on October 22 last year.

The ship set off at 3.36pm with the container stowed on the weather deck, which was open to the elements with an outside temperature of 14C (57.2F).

Watch: Iain Dale clashes with migrant rights campaigner over new immigration policy

At 6.25pm, a young Vietnamese woman took a series of selfies on her phone showing the sweltering conditions inside.

Over the next couple of hours, occupants attempted to make phone calls, with one calling the emergency number for Vietnamese police, without success.

In a recorded message to his family, Nguyen Tho Tuan, 25, said: "I'm sorry. I cannot take care of you. I'm sorry. I'm sorry. I cannot breathe.

"I want to come back to my family. Have a good life."

In another mobile phone recording at 8.02pm, Nguyen Dinh Luong, 20, said: "I cannot breathe. I'm sorry, I have to go now."

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Screengrab taken from CCTV dated 22/10/19 issued by Essex Police showing Eamonn Harrison entering a truck stop in Belgium
Screengrab taken from CCTV dated 22/10/19 issued by Essex Police showing Eamonn Harrison entering a truck stop in Belgium. Picture: PA

In the background, a voice could be heard saying: "Come on everyone. Open up, open up."

In another phone recording two minutes later, the same victim said: "I'm sorry. It's all my fault."

A voice in the background then says: "He's dead."

Cargo operator Jason Rook said in a statement that he smelt a "decomposing smell" as he unloaded the trailer.

He said the Clementine arrived in Purfleet at around 11.50pm, and he had unloaded three or four containers before he got to the one in question.

He said: "As I just passed the doors and reached the left hand side of the trailer I suddenly caught a strong smell that I can only describe as a decomposing smell."

Between 10pm and 10.30pm, it was believed that carbon dioxide in the trailer reached the "toxic threshold", the court heard.

Jurors were shown CCTV of lorry driver Maurice Robinson, 26, collecting the trailer and driving out of Purfleet port.

Robinson had received a Snapchat message allegedly from haulier boss Ronan Hughes saying: "Give them air quickly, don't let them out."

He replied with a "thumbs up emoji", the court was told.

At 1.13am, Robinson opened the trailer nearby in Eastern Avenue, Thurrock, and vapour was seen to rise from the doors.

In CCTV footage played in court, Robinson then appeared to run past the lorry cab before he got back in and drove away.

At 1.17am, he phoned Hughes before he received a call from Gheorghe Nica.

Robinson drove in a loop before returning to Eastern Avenue, jurors heard.

Vapour again poured from the trailer when Robinson opened the doors and called Hughes and Nica again.

Some 23 minutes after finding the bodies, Robinson finally called 999 at 1.36am.

During the call to the ambulance service played in court, Robinson said: "I'm a lorry driver and I just lifted a trailer from the port."

Asked if the patients are breathing, he said: "No, there, there's er loads of them, there's immigrants in the back but they're, they're all lying on the ground."

On what happened, he went on: "I went and lifted a trailer from Purfleet the freight terminal and I got around to where I was gonna park up for the night and I heard a noise in the back and I opened the door and there's a bunch of them lying."

Asked how many, Robinson said: "The trailer is jammed. I don't know."

He estimated there were about 25 people in the trailer and confirmed none was breathing.

Jurors have heard that Robinson and Hughes, 41, have previously admitted the migrants' manslaughters.

Eamonn Harrison, 23, of Co Down, who had dropped the trailer off at Zeebrugge, has denied 39 counts of manslaughter along with alleged key organiser Nica, 43, of Basildon.

Harrison, lorry driver Christopher Kennedy, 24, of Co Armagh, Northern Ireland, and Valentin Calota, 37, of Birmingham, have denied being part of a wider people smuggling conspiracy, which Nica has admitted to.

Read more: Migrant dies trying to cross the Channel from France to the UK