Lorry driver accused of 39 migrant deaths denies knowing they were in trailer

By Emily Pennink, PA Old Bailey Correspondent
·4-min read

A lorry driver accused over the deaths of 39 migrants has told jurors he is “devastated” for their families but denies knowing they were in his trailer.

Eamonn Harrison, 23, was captured on CCTV as he dropped off a container containing the human cargo at Zeebrugge in Belgium on October 22 last year.

On arrival at Purfleet port in Essex early the next day, the container was picked up by Maurice Robinson who discovered the Vietnamese nationals, aged 15 to 44, had all died.

Bodies found in lorry container
Eamonn Harrison (foreground) is caught on CCTV at a truck stop in Belgium on October 22 last year (Essex Police/PA)

Harrison, of Newry, Co Down, has denied their manslaughters and being involved in two successful smuggling runs around October 11 and 18 last year.

On Wednesday, he told jurors he had no idea the migrants were there.

Harrison claimed he had only agreed to take loads of “stolen goods” for his boss Ronan Hughes because he owed him money.

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: “Shite.”

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.”

Eamonn Harrison driving Ronan Hughes’ lorry near the France/Belgium border
Eamonn Harrison driving Ronan Hughes’ lorry near the France/Belgium border (Essex Police/PA)

At the age of 18, Harrison followed in his father’s footsteps and got his HGV licence.

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

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

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

He told jurors he owed Hughes £16,000 after getting drunk and writing off one of his lorries while transporting Danish bacon in May last year.

He 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.”

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

Afterwards, Hughes offered him work on a reduced wage to pay off the £16,000 he owed for the damaged lorry, he said.

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

Harrison said he was “not happy about it” but agreed anyway “because I owed him money”.

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

Bodies found in lorry container
Police and forensic officers at the lorry where 39 bodies of Vietnamese migrants were found (Stefan Rousseau/PA)

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

Harrison said he was told to “go for a walk” in Nieppe in northern France, before dropping the trailer at Zeebrugge alone.

On October 17, Harrison stopped in Nieppe again, having been told to meet Alex and go for another “walk”.

The next day, Harrison rang Robinson for a “wee bit of craic” then got drunk in Bruges.

He told jurors he was “not too happy” about having to deal with Alex again and felt everyone back home was having families while he was “sitting like a tramp in the lorry” with no money.

On the day Harrison’s trailer was loaded with 39 migrants, the defendant initially thought he was going to transport Coca-Cola, he said.

Instead, Hughes allegedly told him it was “another load of stolen goods”.

Harrison said: “I was not happy about it. I assumed I was going to meet Alex, go for a wee walk like normal.”

Instead of Alex, there was another Eastern European man at the meeting point, he said.

This time, Harrison said he stayed in the cab until he heard a bang on the driver’s side and got the “thumbs up”.

The defendant told jurors he heard no noise coming from the trailer.

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 Co Armagh, have admitted the manslaughters.