Driver says he was watching Netflix when migrants were allegedly loaded on to lorry
Eamonn Harrison denies manslaughter of 39 migrants
British police forensics officers work on lorry, found to be containing 39 dead bodies, at Waterglade Industrial Park in Grays, east of London, on October 23rd, 2019. Photograph: Ben Stansall / AFP via Getty Images
A lorry driver accused over the deaths of 39 migrants has told jurors he was watching Netflix in bed with the curtains drawn at the time people were allegedly being loaded into his trailer.
Eamonn Harrison (23) of Newry, Co Down, dropped off a sealed container with the Vietnamese victims inside at Zeebrugge in Belgium on October 22nd last year, the Old Bailey in London has heard.
Another driver, Maurice Robinson (26), picked up the trailer at Purfleet port in Essex, and found all 39 men, women and children had suffocated, jurors have heard.
Giving evidence, Harrison has denied knowing there were people in his trailer on that day or on two earlier, successful people-smuggling trips.
Harrison has denied the manslaughter of 39 migrants and being involved in a wider people-smuggling operation.
He told jurors he agreed to deal with “stolen goods” because he owed his boss Ronan Hughes over a drink-drive accident in one of his trucks.
On the morning of October 22nd last year, Harrison had parked his lorry near Bierne in northern France.
He said he had expected to take a consignment of Coca-Cola before he spoke to Hughes.
Harrison said: “Ronan told me there would be no load of Coca-Cola but there would be a load of stolen goods.”
He said he waited for half an hour for a Romanian he knew as Alex to arrive before setting off to get breakfast at McDonald’s.
The defendant said: “Ronan was in contact with me to tell me to turn around and the man was there.”
He said Alex was not present but another eastern European was.
“He clearly knew the lorry, what it was there for.
“He goes to me, ‘are you okay?’. I said yes. He was telling me where he wanted me to go. His English was not really the best.”
The defendant said the man told him to “close the curtains” and “lie down” once he had moved his lorry.
He did as he was told and watched “a wee of bit Netflix” in bed, Harrison said.
He told jurors: “I got a bang on the door. He gives me a thumbs up and I move off. That’s what I did. It was fairly quick, five minutes.”
After dropping off the trailer in Zeebrugge, Harrison went on to Holland, jurors heard.
After repeatedly trying to get hold of him overnight, at 8.22am on October 23rd Hughes called Harrison and asked if he had heard from Robinson.
Harrison said: “He sounded panicking a wee bit.”
The defendant said he only started to hear the news from friends on WhatsApp and Snapchat.
He said he felt “shocked” but did not understand what had happened.
He headed off to pick up a load of tiles as if it was “business as usual”.
But he told jurors: “Obviously, you know, I was more panicked than anything. I did not know what was going on.”
He abandoned the tile job and decided to travel to Dublin from Cherbourg to meet his parents.
He said: “Obviously lots of people are ringing me (saying), ‘what’s going on’?
“You know, my mum and dad are starting to realise there is something more to this.
“Friends are telling me: ‘When you come in you are going to have to go straight to the police’.
“It was only then that “reality started to hit me”, he said.
“It’s not good. That’s the trailer that I shipped. I was the last man that could have done something,” Harrison told jurors.
Rather than meeting his parents, Harrison was arrested when he got off the boat and put in prison.
While there, he learned there was a threat to his life and he was sent to a mental health unit and then segregation, the court heard.
Harrison said he did not know where the threat came from but thought it might be a “Chinese gang”.
Before his trial, Harrison said he “buried his head in the sand” but later decided to tell the truth because of the effect on his mother.
People had questioned how she could have given birth to a “monster” and said she should “hang herself”, he said.
Alisdair Williamson QC, defending, said: “Did you have any idea what you were getting involved with?”
The defendant said: “No, I did not.”
Mr Williamson said: “Mr Harrison, did you in order to work off your debt to Mr Hughes agree to human beings to be put in the back of your trailer?”
Harrison replied: “No I did not.”
Cross-examining, Bill Emlyn Jones said: “You accept and have known for a long time, Mr Harrison, that there were 39 people in your lorry on October 22nd.
“At the start of the evidence yesterday you were asked how you felt about that. You said you felt ‘shite’. And you felt devastated for their families.”
The defendant said: “Correct, yes.”
The prosecutor went on: “And you understand, Mr Harrison, it is my case that you shut them into your trailer. Did you?”
Harrison replied: “No I did not.”
Harrison said he was “fearful” of mentioning handling stolen goods to authorities and risk implicating the Romanian he knew as Alex after being told there was “a hit” on his life.
He added that Hughes had never threatened him and he only realised his boss was “knee deep in this thing” when he pleaded guilty.
Harrison was quizzed on the evidence of witness X, a migrant who was transported in the defendant’s trailer on October 10th last year.
Witness X had told jurors the man who picked him up was English and “a little bit fat”.
He said he and the other migrants were instructed to huddle in the middle of the trailer when they heard a knock on the side.
Harrison accepted he was a “little fat” but denied migrant X was referring to him, saying: “I assume it was Alex.”
Jurors have heard Alex, identified as Petrisor Zgarcea, was Romanian with “limited English”.
Jurors have heard that Hughes (41), of Co Armagh, and Robinson, of Craigavon in Northern Ireland have admitted their involvement in the tragedy.