Co Down truck driver goes on trial for manslaughter over deaths in container

Thirty-nine men, women and boys were found suffocated in shipping container

A Co Down truck-driver accused of being responsible for the deaths of 39 Vietnamese men, women and boys found suffocated in a shipping container near London last year has gone on trial.

The victims, nine of whom were teenagers and two aged just 15, were discovered last October in a container on an industrial estate in Grays, about 32km east of London.

Prosecutor William Emlyn Jones said the dead had been sealed in darkness inside a switched-off refrigeration unit for at least 12 hours, with the temperature rising to an unbearable 38.5 Celsius.

"What it must have been like inside that lorry does not bear thinking about. In short, they suffocated. There were no survivors," says Mr Emlyn Jones, who quoted text from one of the dead, Pham Thi Ngoc Oanh.

In it, the 28-year-old Vietnamese sent a final farewell message to her mother back in Vietnam: "Maybe going to die in the container, can't breathe any more, dear."

Haulier, Ronan Hughes (41), from Leitrim, Silverstream, Tyholland, Co Monaghan and Maurice Robinson (26), from Craigavon, Co Armagh have already pleaded guilty to manslaughter.

Four others accused of being part of the people-smuggling ring went on trial on Wednesday at London's Old Bailey court, including 23-year-old truck-driver Eamonn Harrison, from Mayobridge, Co Down.

British-Romanian dual national Gheorghe Nica (43), and Harrison deny manslaughter; while Harrison, Christopher Kennedy (24), and Valentin Calota (37), deny conspiracy to assist unlawful immigration.

The Vietnamese migrants' journey began in northern Europe on October 22nd when Harrison drove the container to the Belgian port of Zeebrugge where it was loaded onto a cargo ship for England, Emlyn Jones said.

Shortly after midnight it was collected in Purfleet by Robinson. He stopped almost immediately after being sent a message by his employer, which said: “Give them air quickly, but don’t let them out”.

“What he found must haunt him still,” Emlyn Jones told the Old Bailey jury: “For the 39 men and women inside, that trailer had become their tomb.”

Huge sums are made by people-traffickers, with people paying up to £10,000 to cross the English Channel in the back of a truck. The family of one of the victims had paid nearly £20,000 to have their daughter brought from Vietnam.