Migrants may have died in lorry 'because greedy smugglers doubled load'

Migrants who died while trapped in a lorry may have run out of air because people-smugglers got too ‘greedy’ and ‘doubled up’ by putting two loads of people into one container. 

The Old Bailey heard that it was smugglers’ ‘greed’ that was the reason 39 Vietnamese men, women and children, aged between 15 and 44,  were smuggled across the Channel in a sealed container at one time as temperatures reached 38.5C. 

The jury was shown final messages from the migrants who were trapped in the container for 12 hours including a man who recorded a message for his wife saying: ‘I’m sorry. I cannot take care of you.’ 

Lorry driver Eamonn Harrison allegedly dropped off the container at the ferry port at Zeebrugge in Belgium just before 2pm on October 22 last year. It was loaded onto the MV Clementine cargo ship at 2.52pm but it set sail 36 minutes late at 3.36pm and by 6.25pm the temperature in the trailer had risen to almost 35C, the court heard.

The sweltering conditions were demonstrated in three selfies taken by Pham Thi Tra My, 36, which were shown to the court. Over the next few minutes she repeatedly tried to make calls on her mobile.

Just before 7pm another victim, Nguyen Dinh Luong, 20, attempted to call Vietnamese emergency services dialling 133 but it did not connect.

At 7.37pm, Nguyen Tho Tuan, 25, recorded a message in Vietnamese for his wife, children and family. In it he 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.’

In a mobile phone video recorded at 8.02pm, a voice says: ‘I can’t breathe….I can’t breathe. I’m sorry. I have to go now.’

In a second video file on the same mobile phone, recorded a minute later, the same voice repeats that he is sorry, and after a long pause adds: ‘It’s all my fault.’

Prosecutor Bill Emlyn Jones told jurors that a voice could be heard in the background of one of the recordings saying: ‘He’s dead’. By 9.02pm the temperature in the trailer had allegedly reached 38C.

A forensic expert said it would have taken about nine hours for the air to turn toxic in the trailer, soon after resulting in death.

Jurors heard how hauler boss Ronan Hughes had given lorry driver Maurice Robinson instructions on what to do when he picked up the container at Purfleet early on October 23 with a Snapchat message that said: ‘Give them air quickly but don’t let them out.’

Mr Emlyn Jones told jurors: ‘They were, of course, right to be concerned. However, they were much too late.’

The court was told CCTV had recorded Robinson parking, walking to the rear of the lorry, opening the lorry door and standing there for about 90 seconds and then walking slowly back to his cab. He did not call 999 until 1.36am, after driving around and speaking to Hughes.

Prosecutors told jurors that human cargo had previously been successfully transported in lorry containers from Zeebrugge in Belgium to Purfleet in Essex on October 11 and 18 but on October 14, 20 migrants were turfed out of a lorry driven by Christopher Kennedy bound for the Eurotunnel.

Mr Emlyn Jones suggested the trip on October 23 turned to tragedy because the smugglers, who were being paid £10,000 a head, simply got ‘too greedy’.

He told jurors: ‘It may well have crossed your minds – why did this trip go so terribly wrong, when on the other occasions the migrants survived the trip and were safely unloaded?

‘You may well conclude that on this occasion the criminals just got too greedy, at £10,000 a head.

‘We may not determine for sure, but it might not be a coincidence that a lorry-load of migrants was detected and 20 people were ejected out of Kennedy’s lorry on the night of the 14th October.

‘Did this mean the people smugglers were under pressure to double up?

‘Remember, at least two of those migrants who died on the night of the 22nd/23rd had been amongst those kicked off Kennedy’s lorry a week before.

‘Were they doing two loads in one and did that cause those deaths?’

Gheorghe Nica 43, of Basildon, Essex, and Harrison, 23, of Mayobridge, Co Down, Northern Ireland, deny 39 counts of manslaughter. Harrison, Kennedy, 24, of Co Armagh, Northern Ireland and Valentin Calota 37, of Birmingham, deny being part of a wider people-smuggling operation, which Nica has admitted.

Among those that previously admitted their part in the people-smuggling plot are Robinson, 26, of Craigavon in Northern Ireland, who found the 39 migrants dead in the container after picking it up in Purfleet, and Hughes, 41, of Co Armagh, Northern Ireland, who have admitted manslaughter.

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