Essex lorry deaths: victims pleaded for lorry doors to be opened, court hears

Matthew Weaver and agency
·2-min read
<span>Photograph: Stefan Rousseau/PA</span>
Photograph: Stefan Rousseau/PA

Victims of an alleged people-smuggling gang desperately pleaded for the doors of a lorry container to be opened before all 39 of them suffocated, a court has heard.

A year ago this month, the men, women and children, aged 15 to 44, were found dead in the trailer after it was shipped from the Belgium port of Zeebrugge to Purfleet in Essex.

In a telephone message from one of the victims, calls of “open up, open up” could be heard in the background, the Old Bailey heard.

All those in the container suffocated in temperatures of up to 38.5C (101.3F) in the dark interior, the jury was told. Some of the victims realised others had already died before they all perished, the calls revealed.

On Tuesday jurors heard how the trailer was loaded on to the ferry at Zeebrugge at 3pm on 22 October last year. The ferry, the Clementine, set off 36 minutes later with the container stowed on the weather deck.

At 6.25pm, a young Vietnamese woman took a series of selfies on her phone showing the sweltering conditions inside.

Over the next couple of hours, occupants attempted to make phone calls, with one calling the emergency number for Vietnamese police, without success.

In a recorded message to his family, Nguyen Tho Tuan, 25, said: “I’m sorry. I cannot take care of you. I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I cannot breathe. I want to come back to my family. Have a good life.”

In another mobile phone recording at 8.02pm, Nguyen Dinh Luong, 20, said: “I cannot breathe. I’m sorry, I have to go now.”

In the background, a voice could be heard saying: “Come on everyone. Open up, open up.” In another phone recording two minutes later, the same victim said: “I’m sorry. It’s all my fault.”

Between 10pm and 10.30pm, it was believed that carbon dioxide in the trailer reached the “toxic threshold”, the court heard.

Eamonn Harrison, 23, of County Down, who had dropped the trailer off at Zeebrugge, has denied 39 counts of manslaughter along with the alleged key organiser, Gheorghe Nica, 43, of Basildon in Essex.

Harrison, lorry driver Christopher Kennedy, 24, of County Armagh, and Valentin Calota, 37, of Birmingham, have denied being part of a wider people-smuggling conspiracy, which Nica has admitted to.

The trial continues.