Horrific final moments of 39 Essex lorry migrants who ‘came for a better life’

Trapped migrants desperately tried to batter their way out of an airtight lorry trailer as they suffocated in almost 40C – with many sending heartbreaking final messages to loved ones.

The 39 Vietnamese evacuees hoping for a better life in the UK were crammed inside the container for at least 12 hours from Zeebrugge, Belgium, to Purfleet, Essex.

A trial at the Old Bailey heard that the carbon dioxide inside the trailer reached its toxic threshold about three hours before the doors were finally opened and the bodies found.

During their harrowing final moments, some of those inside used a pole in futile attempts to force open the sealed doors.

On Monday at the Old Bailey, two men were found guilty of manslaughter over the deaths of the 39 Vietnamese migrants.

Ringleader Gheorghe Nica, 43, from Basildon, in Essex, and lorry driver Eamonn Harrison, 23, from County Down, Northern Ireland, could be facing life behind bars after they were found guilty by jurors after 23 hours of deliberation

The jury also convicted them of their part in a wider people-smuggling operation with Christopher Kennedy, 24, from County Armagh, and Valentin Calota, 38, from Birmingham.

The verdicts bring the total number of people convicted in Britain to eight, including Irish haulier boss Ronan Hughes, 41, of Armagh, and 26-year-old lorry driver Maurice Robinson, of Craigavon, who admitted manslaughter.

The bodies of the migrants – 28 men, eight women and three children aged between 15 and 44 – were found “closely packed” inside the sealed HGV container as steam poured from the back of it in Grays, Essex on October 23, 2019.

Prosecutor Bill Emlyn Jones told the court that migrants “have shown themselves prepared to go to great lengths to come to the UK, looking for a better life”.

The trial was told that some had paid “upwards of £10,000” to cross the Channel in the back of the lorry.

Most of the victims had stripped down to the bare minimum of clothing, with a police officer describing finding their “half-naked” bodies packed closely together.

Distressing tapes made by the Vietnamese nationals in their last moments alive were played to the court over the course of the trial.

As the oxygen ran out, Nguyen Tho Tuan, 28 – one of the migrants – told his wife, children and mother in an audio message: “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.”

He recorded the message at 7.37pm after phone signal in the trailer cut out.

Pham Thi Tra My, 26, who took photos of herself, tried to make three calls only minutes apart. None of those calls were successful.

Mr Emlyn Jones, prosecuting, said one 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.

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

The prosecutor said the migrants would have started dying around 10 to 10.30pm after the air turned toxic.

In CCTV footage, trucker Maurice Robinson, 26, parks up and opens the right-hand door as steam pours from the back of the HGV container in Grays, Essex, just after 1am on October 23 last year.

CCTV shown during lorry container trial

Just minutes earlier, haulier boss Ronan Hughes, 41, sent a Snapchat message telling Robinson to “give them air quickly, but don’t let them out”.

About 23 minutes after finding the bodies, Robinson finally dialled 999, at 1.36am.

Asked if the patients were breathing, he told the call handler: “No. There, there’s loads of them, there’s immigrants in the back but they’re, they’re all lying on the ground.”

PC Jack Emerson, one of the first officers on scene, told the court the migrants lay motionless on the floor of the trailer.

He told the court: “Most of them were wearing clothes on their lower half but they all appeared to not be wearing any clothing on their upper half.

“All of the bodies appeared intact and it was in my opinion that they had not been there for a very long period of time as there was not any visible sign of decomposure.

“There was however a strange smell coming from the trailer that smelt like chemicals.

“There was also smoke condensation coming from the rear of the trailer which suggested to me that the trailer was refrigerated.”

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

Jurors were told the temperature inside the trailer reached a maximum of 38.5C sometime after 9pm.

The victims had suffocated as the sweltering trailer became a “tomb” with the temperature reaching an “unbearable” 38.5C (101F), the Old Bailey was told.

Alleged ringleader Gheorghe Nica, 43, from Basildon, in Essex, and lorry driver Eamonn Harrison, 23, from County Down, Northern Ireland, had denied 39 counts of manslaughter.

While Harrison, lorry driver Christopher Kennedy, 24, from County Armagh, and Valentin Calota, 38, from Birmingham, had pleaded not guilty to being part of a people smuggling conspiracy, but were found guilty.

Nica admitted a limited role but denied involvement in the fatal run.