Faces of 39 migrants found dead in lorry trailer including couple holding hands

These are the faces of 39 Vietnamese migrants who were found dead in the back of a lorry trailer as they tried to reach the UK in pursuit of a better life.

The migrants, aged between 15 and 44, suffocated to death in a dark, hot container that became a “tomb” with temperatures soaring to almost 40C in October 2019.

In one of many tragic stories to emerge since the discovery in Grays, Essex, on October 23 last year, two of the migrants – Tran Hai Loc and Nguyen Thi Van, both 35 – were found with their hands entwined and huddled together.

They comforted each other as their dream of a better future in Britain slipped away inside the airtight container as it was shipped from Zeebrugge to Purfleet.

We have pictured every victim after four members of a million-pound people-smuggling ring were found guilty on Monday following a 10-week trial.

The 39 victims or their families had each spent thousands of pounds in a desperate bid to have them smuggled into the UK so they could support loved ones back home.

During the trial, jurors were provided with a snapshot of the victims and their dreams of a better life.

They included a bricklayer, a restaurant worker, a nail bar technician, a budding beautician, and a university graduate, who had worked in IT to save up and fund his own passage.

Their journeys across the world, via travel agencies in Vietnam, had included various stops in Russia, China, Germany, Poland, Hungary and Romania.

They would fly to one country, work there so they could build up cash reserves and send some money home, before then attempting the perilous journey to Britain.

Many of their families borrowed thousands of pounds to fund their passage, relying on their potential future earnings once they got in Britain.

Tran Hai Loc and Nguyen Thi Van had travelled by plane to work in Hungary as fruit pickers for one-and-a-half months, having organised the placement through a labour company in Hanoi at a cost of £6,000 each.

Their families last heard from them on October 18 last year when they phoned to say their plans had changed.

Four days later, they and the other men, women and children had made their way to a pick-up point en route to Zeebrugge in Belgium, with one group coming from Paris and another from Brussels.

Jurors at the Old Bailey heard that there could have been a 40th migrant on the trip, but for the fact that he was late for his rendezvous with driver Eamonn Harrison’s lorry in Bierne, northern France.

During the cross-Channel trip on board the Clementine, the group had desperately tried to raise the alarm, even calling the Vietnamese emergency number, as they ran out of air.

When they found there was no mobile phone signal in the trailer, some recorded goodbye messages to their families.

Nguyen Tho Tuan, 25, told his family: “I am sorry. I cannot take care of you. I am sorry. I am sorry. I cannot breathe.

“I want to come back to my family. Have a good life.”

A metal pole had been used to try to punch through the roof of the refrigerated container, but only managed to dent the interior.

Prosecutor Bill Emlyn Jones had said: “There was no way out, and no-one to hear them, no-one to help them.”

When police were alerted to the deaths by Maurice Robinson, they found the migrants were half-naked and frothing at the mouth.

They had been dead long enough for rigor mortis to have set in.

Former Detective Chief Inspector Martin Pasmore, who dealt with their identification, said: “It was shocking to say the least.”

He said it was important to treat the bodies with “dignity and respect”.

“Dying in such a horrendous way… You could not help but have a great sense there was no panic there.

“They seem to have died with dignity and respect for each other, just the way the bodies were laid.

“There is one couple holding hands. They stayed together throughout the transportation to hospital and they stayed together throughout the post-mortems.”

Mr Pasmore said that seeing the tragedy had affected officers, and the risk of post-traumatic stress disorder was uppermost in his mind.

It also had a “significant impact” on the families in Vietnam, many of whom had borrowed thousands of pounds to fund the journey.

Officers handled 391 calls from concerned relatives wanting to identify loved ones.

Some of the migrants had made repeated failed attempts to be smuggled into the country, with one being turned back five times.

Witness X, a Vietnamese migrant who was smuggled by the gang on October 11 last year, provided an insight into why so many people were prepared to risk everything.

He was attracted to Britain partly because of the language.

Firstly, he had moved from Poland to France after getting a Schengen visa as a business student.

He then arranged his “VIP” trip across the Channel through a Vietnamese connection on Facebook, who put him in contact with someone in Dulwich, south-east London, called Phong.

He got a taxi to a pick up point where he was ushered onto a trailer by the driver, who told them to go “quickly” but “keep quiet”.

Before arriving at Zeebrugge, the driver – said to be Eamonn Harrison – stopped once to provide them with water and further instructions, the court heard.

The migrants were provided bags to urinate in and told to huddle together in the centre of the trailer when they heard a signal.

After he arrived in Britain safely, witness X was made to stay at Phong’s flat in Dulwich until his parents in Vietnam had transferred the £13,000 payment.

Asked what his plan was, the migrant told jurors: “I’m going to go to the Home Office to apply for my papers.”

For every person successfully smuggled into Britain, the lorry drivers potentially pocketed £1,500, police said.

Detective Chief Inspector Daniel Stoten, of Essex Police, said: “So you see this unacceptable disgusting trade was quite financially rewarding for these crime gangs.”

He said the “scale and complexity” of the threat posed by the gangs and the “callous nature of their business model” should never be under-estimated.

Romanian ringleader Gheorghe Nica, 43, from Basildon, and lorry driver Eamonn Harrison, 24, from County Down, were found guilty on Monday of 39 counts of manslaughter.

They were also convicted of their part in the people-smuggling operation with lorry driver Christopher Kennedy, 24, from County Armagh, and Valentin Calota, 38, from Birmingham.

The verdicts bring the total number of people convicted in Britain to eight, including haulier boss Ronan Hughes, 41, of Armagh, and 26-year-old lorry driver Maurice Robinson, of Craigavon, who admitted manslaughter.

Prosecutors are considering charges against a further three people.

The maximum sentence for people-smuggling is 14 years in prison with manslaughter carrying a possible life sentence.

Who were the 39 victims?
The victims were:

  • 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
  • Nguyen Dinh Tu, 26