Thirty nine migrants made desperate attempts to call for help as they were starved of oxygen and died in the back of a lorry while being smuggled into the UK, the Old Bailey heard today.
The Vietnamese victims, including three children, were all found dead after spending nearly 12 hours sealed inside a refrigerated container which had “become their tomb”.
Temperatures soared to an “unbearable” 38.5 degrees inside the pitch-black container, jurors heard this morning, as they made the perilous trip across Europe.
The court heard occupants tried in vain to call for help, while one victim, 28 year old Pham Thi Ngoc Oanh, penned a text message that could not be sent saying: “Maybe going to die in the container, can’t breathe any more dear”.
Opening the case, prosecutor William Emlyn Jones said the victims, aged from 15 to 44, were loaded into the container in northern Europe and driven by Eamonn Harrison to Zeebrugge in Belgium, before it was loaded on to a cargo ship bound for the UK.
Maurice Robinson collected the container just after midnight on October 23 last year in Purfleet, Essex, and found the occupants dead when he stopped to give the migrants some air.
“By then, it was getting on for 12 hours – at least – since any meaningful amount of fresh air had been let into the sealed container”, said Mr Emlyn Jones.
“Robinson knew he had to check on the occupants – he’d been sent a message by his boss telling him what to do as soon as the lorry was in his control: ‘Give them air quickly, but don’t let them out’.
“Robinson drove out of Purfleet port, pulling that trailer on the back of his lorry, and almost immediately stopped and opened the doors of the trailer at the back. What he found must haunt him still. For the 39 men and women inside, that trailer had become their tomb.
“The 28 men, eight women and three children, two of them just 15 years old, had been sealed into that airtight container, they had been in pitch darkness for at least 11 and three quarter hours.
“The trailer in question was a refrigerator unit, but the refrigerator had not been turned on at any point while the victims were inside. Recovered temperature readings from the unit indicate that the temperature inside that trailer rose to what must have been an unbearable 38.5 degrees Celsius, more than 101 degree Fahrenheit.”
There were no survivors in the container, as the victims had been starved of oxygen and suffocated.
Gheorghe Nica, 43, of Basildon, Essex, and lorry driver Eamonn Harrison, 23, of Mayobridge, Co Down, Northern Ireland, both deny 39 counts of manslaughter and a people-smuggling charge.
They are on trial alongside Valentin Calota, 37, of Birmingham, and Christopher Kennedy, 24, of Co Armagh, Northern Ireland, who both deny a conspiracy to assist unlawful immigration between May 1 2018 and October 24 2019.
Mr Emlyn Jones said the trial will hear evidence of more than £10,000 being paid by each migrant to be smuggled into the UK.
“Illegal immigration into the United Kingdom has been a hot topic over the last few years, making headlines, and dominating domestic and European politics”, he told the court.
“Amidst all the sound and fury generated by the media, and amidst all the statistics, numbers and debate about the causes of illegal immigration and its consequences, it is perhaps easy to lose sight of the fact that behind each story, and behind each number on a graph, there is a human being.
“It is a sad and unavoidable truth that people from other parts of the world, perhaps from countries less secure or less affluent than our own, have shown themselves prepared to go to great lengths to come to the UK, looking for a better life.
“The risks involved, and the costs involved, not just financial and personal costs, can be enormous, because people leave behind their families behind. They might spend everything they have to fund the trip, they might leave their families saddled with debt to fund the journey, and all because they are prepared to take extraordinary risks involved in exchange for the chance of a brighter future.
“They do it because they are desperate.”
It is said the people smuggling operation had already made successful trips “fraught with danger” through Europe to the UK, with lorry-loads of migrants “left for hours and hours with no means of escape and no means of communication with the outside world”.
Kennedy is said to have driven on two previous trips but was not involved in the fatal journey. Asked by a friend what had happened on October 23, he is said to have replied: “Must have been 2 many and run out of air”.
“What it must have been like inside that lorry does not bear thinking about”, added Mr Emlyn Jones.
“We do have some direct evidence of what the victims were going through, recovered from some of their mobile phones. They had no signal inside the container, so could not call for help or alert the outside world to their plight.
“But naturally, in desperation, they tried. In the phone of one of the deceased, 28 year old Pham Thi Ngoc Oanh, a text message was found which read ‘maybe going to die in the container, can’t breathe any more dear’. It was found in her mobile phone marked ‘unsent’.
Maurice Robinson and his boss, haulage company owner Ronan Hughes, have already admitted 39 counts of manslaughter and involvement in the people smuggling operation.
A man called Alexandru Hanga has pleaded guilty to collecting migrants from the lorry on a previous trip, on October 11 last year. Another driver, Gazmir Nuzi, has admitted collecting his nephew and another individual on that same smuggling operation.
The victims have been named as: Dinh Dinh Binh, 15, Nguyen Minh Quang, 20, Nguyen Huy Phong, 35, Le Van Ha, 30, Nguyen Van Hiep, 24, Bui Phan Thang, 37, Nguyen Van Hung, 33, Nguyen Huy Hung, 15, Nguyen Tien Dung, 33, Pham Thi Tra My, 26, Tran Khanh Tho, 18, Nguyen Van Nhan, 33, Vo Ngoc Nam, 28, Vo Van Linh, 25, Nguyen Ba Vu Hung, 34, Vo Nhan Du, 19, Tran Hai Loc, 35, Tran Manh Hung, 37, Nguyen Thi Van, 35, Bui Thi Nhung, 19, Hoang Van Tiep, 18, Tran Thi Ngoc, 19, Phan Thi Thanh, 41, Tran Thi Tho, 21, Duong Minh Tuan, 27, Pham Thi Ngoc Oanh, 28, Tran Thi Mai Nhung, 18, Le Trong Thanh, 44, Nguyen Ngoc Ha, 32, Hoang Van Hoi, 24, Tran Ngoc Hieu, 17, Cao Tien Dung, 37, Dinh Dinh Thai Quyen, 18, Dong Huu Tuyen, 22, Nguyen Dinh Luong, 20, Cao Huy Thanh, 37, Nguyen Trong Thai, 26, Nguyen Tho Tuan, 25, and Nguyen Dinh Tu, 26.
The six-week trial is being conducted across two courtrooms at the Old Bailey to accommodate everyone within social distancing guidelines.
Two of the defendants are in a dock next door to the courtroom where the jury are sitting and evidence is due to be heard, watching proceedings via videolink.
The trial continues.