Essex lorry deaths: 39 migrants suffocated after driver ‘ordered not to let them out’

A people-smuggler discovered 39 migrants dead in the back of his lorry after receiving a message from his boss saying: “Give them air quickly, but don’t let them out”, a court heard today.

Driver Maurice Robinson, 26, opened the sealed unit to find the bodies of Vietnamese men, women and children aged between 15 and 44.

They were trapped in the container for almost 12 hours without fresh air as temperatures reached an “unbearable” 38.5C.

There was no mobile phone reception inside the pitch-black container but some victims tried to send messages to loved ones.

One 28-year-old woman Pham Thi Ngoc Oanh wrote an unsent text reading:

“Maybe going to die in the container, can’t breathe any more dear”.

Prosecutors say people-smugglers charged “upwards of £10,000” per
person for a single trip across the Channel.

An Old Bailey jury heard Robinson opened the rear doors of the container after collecting it in Essex following a crossing from Belgium.

Prosecutor Bill Emlyn Jones QC said: “What he found must haunt him still.

For the 39 men and women inside, that lorry had become their tomb.

“The 28 men, 8 women and three children, two of them just 15 years old, had been sealed into that container, they’d been in pitch darkness, for at least 11 3⁄4 hours…

“The trailer in question was a refrigerator unit but the refrigerator had not been turned on at any point whilst the victims were inside.

“And recovered temperature readings from the refrigerator unit indicate that the temperature inside the trailer rose to what must have been an unbearable 38.5° Celsius, more than 101 degrees Fahrenheit.”

Postmortems showed the victims died of oxygen starvation due to increased carbon dioxide.

The court heard Eamonn Harrison, 23, picked up the migrants in his lorry in Northern Europe and took it to Zeebrugge where it was loaded onto a ship.

Robinson collected it in the early hours of October 23 last year.

Prosecutors say he “almost immediately” stopped and opened the rear doors. The court heard that after finding the bodies, he rang accomplices before dialling 999.

Christopher Kennedy, 24, was allegedly a “member of the team” involved in previous smuggling. He texted a friend: “Must have been 2 meany [sic] and run out of air”.

The “team” are said to have carried out two other illegal operations in previous fortnight and got migrants to “safe locations”.

Mr Jones QC said: “This is a payment on delivery business.”

Harrison, from Co Down, Northern Ireland, denies 39 manslaughter counts and conspiracy to assist immigration.

Gheorghe Nica, 43, of Basildon, Essex, is accused of organising transport for migrants in the UK. He denies 39 counts of manslaughter but admits conspiracy. Kennedy, of Northern Ireland, and Valentin Calota, 37, of Birmingham, both deny participating in the conspiracy.

Robinson, from Co Armagh, Ireland, has already pleaded guilty to 39 counts of manslaughter and the conspiracy charge.

Ronan Hughes, 41, who ran a haulage company based in Co Monaghan, also admits 39 counts of manslaughter and the conspiracy.

The trial continues.