Essex lorry deaths trial: Driver who denies killing migrants ‘devastated’ for families

A lorry driver accused of the deaths of 39 Vietnamese nationals has said he is “devastated” for the migrants’ families.

Eamonn Harrison was captured on CCTV as he dropped off a container carrying the victims at Zeebrugge, in Belgium, on 22 October last year.

The migrants, aged 15 to 44, were all found dead after Maurice Robinson picked up the container at Purfleet port in Essex the next day.

Harrison, of Newry, County Down, has said he had no idea the Vietnamese nationals were in the container and denied their manslaughter.

The 23-year-old has also denied being involved in two successful smuggling runs on 11 and 18 October last year.

Alisdair Williamson QC, defending, said: “We all know that you drove a tractor unit that pulled the trailer that contained 39 people on their way to their deaths. How do you feel about that?”

Harrison replied: “S****”.

Asked how he felt for the families, he said: “Devastated.”

Mr Williamson said: “Did you know that there was anyone on your trailer?”

The defendant replied: “No.”

He told jurors he had suffered ADHD at school and found it hard to make friends.

He followed in his father’s footsteps aged 18 and got his HGV licence.

Harrison was stopped by Border Force officials who found 18 Vietnamese migrants sitting on boxes of waffles in his trailer in May 2018.

Asked if he had any idea they were there, Harrison said: “No. I was shocked, you know?”

He told jurors he called his boss Ronan Hughes, who was also shocked.

Harrison said he was sent on his way having been issued a civil penalty notice.

He also had a crash and wrote off a lorry tractor and trailer, ruining a load of Danish bacon, in May 2019.

Harrison said: “I was not in a good place. I was drinking. I was actually drunk when I had the crash.”

Asked how Hughes reacted, he said: “At first he was concerned. Once he knew I was all right, he was not happy.”

Harrison said he felt “stupid” over the incident, which caused a lot of damage.

The defendant said he went to Spain to stay with his parents and ignored Hughes’ attempts to contact him.

He said: “I owed him money. I just caused him a lot of damage.”

Harrison eventually went to see him and Hughes offered him work on a reduced wage to pay off the £16,000 he owed for the damaged lorry, he said.

He said Hughes also offered him “something else” if he was willing to “load stolen goods”.

Mr Williamson asked: “What is your reaction when Mr Hughes says to you, ‘I would like you to load some stolen goods?'”

Harrison said: “I was not happy about it.”

The lawyer said: “Why did you agree to it?”

The defendant replied: “Because I owed him money.”

He said he would “walk away from the tractor and come back 15 minutes later because I did not want to have anything to do with it”.

The defendant went on to describe how he met Romanian Petrisor Zgarcea, who he knew as Alex, at West Thurrock services on 7 October last year.

They went together to the continent where Harrison made a series of stops on 10 October, jurors heard.

At Nieppe in northern France, Harrison told jurors he was told to “go for a walk”, so he left his lorry for five to 10 minutes.

He said: “I’m not too happy about it, do you know? What can you do? I owe the man money.”

Later, he dropped off the trailer at Zeebrugge alone before picking Alex up at a petrol station and taking him to Calais.

Harrison and alleged organiser Gheorghe Nica, 43, of Basildon, Essex, deny 39 counts of manslaughter.

Harrison, lorry driver Christopher Kennedy, 24, of Co Armagh, and Valentin Calota, 37, of Birmingham, have denied people smuggling, which Nica admits.

Jurors have heard that Robinson, 26, of Craigavon in Northern Ireland, and Hughes, 41, of County Armagh, have admitted the manslaughters.

The trial continues.

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