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Monday, October 28, 2019, 06:37
Truck deaths leave many questions unanswered
By Earle Gale in London
Monday, October 28, 2019, 06:37 By Earle Gale in London

A relative lights an incense stick infront of a portrait of Bui Thi Nhung, who is feared to be among the 39 people found dead in a truck in Britain, inside her house in Vietnam's Nghe An province on Oct 26, 2019. (NHAC NGUYEN / AFP)

The refrigerated semitrailer truck in which 39 bodies were discovered on Wednesday has been towed from the industrial park where it was found near the Queen Elizabeth II Bridge that takes four lanes of the M25 London orbital motorway over the River Thames.

The bodies now lie in a hospital morgue 40 kilometers to the north.

But even though the visual reminders of the deaths uncovered at the Waterglade Industrial Park in Grays, Essex, 40 km east of central London, have gone, it will be a long time before mental images of the victims and the awful way in which they died fade.

Investigators will be hoping for some answers from the postmortem examinations pathologists have been carrying out at Broomfield Hospital, on the outskirts of the city of Chelmsford.

I think that no matter where these victims come from, this is a great tragedy which drew the attention of the international community to the issue of illegal immigration.

Hua Chunying, Spokeswoman, Chinese Foreign Ministry

READ MORE: Truck tragedy: Autopsies begin, nationality confusion remains

On Saturday, the BBC reported that a fifth person had been arrested in connection with the deaths.

Police are investigating whether the deaths of the eight women and 31 men were part of a "wider conspiracy" to traffic migrants, following reports the victims had set out from Vietnam in a larger group, according to The Independent newspaper.

British detectives met with the Vietnamese ambassador to the United Kingdom on Saturday amid claims most of the men and women found in the refrigerated trailer were from one rural community in the southeast Asian country, the newspaper reported.

The victims are believed to have been part of a group of 100 migrants who set out to reach the UK for "a new life", according to Father Anthony Dang Huu Nam, minister of a Catholic church in Vietnam's rural Nghe An province.

The BBC quoted a message from Pham Thi Tra My, 26, which was sent to her family in Vietnam at 10:30 pm British Summer Time on Tuesday - two hours before the trailer arrived at the terminal in Purfleet, Essex, from Zeebrugge, Belgium.

"I am really, really sorry, Mum and Dad, my trip to a foreign land has failed," she wrote. "I am dying, I can't breathe. I love you very much Mum and Dad. I am sorry, Mother."

Police initially believed the victims may have been Chinese, but have acknowledged that this is a "developing picture".

The Daily Telegraph said it had reason to believe at least some of the victims were Vietnamese. The newspaper quoted Vietnamese groups in the UK as saying they had been inundated with inquiries about missing loved ones.

Tran Thi Hien (center), mother of Bui Thi Nhung who is feared to be among the 39 people found dead in a truck in Britain, is being consoled inside her house in Vietnam's Nghe An province on Oct 26, 2019. (NHAC NGUYEN / AFP)

In a statement on Saturday, the Vietnamese Ministry of Foreign Affairs said it had asked the country's embassy in London to cooperate with police and help identify victims.

ALSO READ: Vietnam takes forensic samples to help in truck deaths case

Liu Xiaoming, China's ambassador to the UK, called on the international community to step up cooperation to crack down on human trafficking.

Essex police suspect the victims died while being brought into the country illegally. But they do not yet know whether they were being trafficked with their consent or without, and they do not know their identities, or even, for certain, their nationalities.

Despite photographs of Pham circulating online, Essex police have yet to confirm if she is among the dead.

The postmortem examinations would be a "very slow, organized process", Richard Shepherd, one of the UK's top forensic pathologists, was quoted by the BBC as saying

According to the BBC, Nguyen Dinh Gia said that he believed his son, Nguyen Dinh Luong, 20, was among the victims. He said he had not heard from him since he said he was joining a group in Paris to try to reach the UK last week.

Dang, the Catholic priest in the remote town of Yen Thanh in Nghe An province, 300km south of the Vietnamese capital Hanoi, told Reuters on Saturday he was liaising with family members of the victims.

"The whole district is covered in sorrow. I'm still collecting contact details for all the victims' families, and will hold a ceremony to pray for them tonight. This is a catastrophe for our community," he said.

He said families told him they knew relatives were making the journey to the UK at the time the container truck would have been traveling, and had been unable to contact their loved ones.

The driver of the truck has been charged with manslaughter and human trafficking.

Maurice Robinson, 25, from County Armagh in Northern Ireland, faces 39 counts of manslaughter, conspiracy to traffic people, conspiracy to assist unlawful immigration, and money laundering, Essex police said on Saturday.

Officers have raided three Northern Ireland properties linked to Robinson. The National Crime Agency has said it wants to establish whether organized criminal gangs were involved.

Investigators know that the truck cab arrived in England from Dublin, via the port of Holyhead in North Wales. The refrigerated trailer arrived in Purfleet, just west of Grays, shortly after midnight on Wednesday. Ambulance workers attended the scene at about 1:30 am.

A spokesman for Essex police said the "careful, dignified handling" of the bodies was the main concern of investigators.

The BBC quoted Richard Shepherd, one of the UK's top forensic pathologists, as saying the postmortem examinations would be a "very slow, organized process".

"It is a meticulous examination starting with looking externally," he said. "What clothes were they wearing? Is there any jewelry that might identify them? Are there any documents? Are there passports? Have these people been tortured? Have they been sexually assaulted? Have they been beaten?"

Police forensic officers attend the scene after a truck was found to contain a large number of dead bodies, in Thurrock, South England, Oct 23, 2019. (ALASTAIR GRANT / AP)

Ben-Julian Harrington, the chief constable of Essex, said in a statement, "This is the largest investigation of its kind Essex police have ever had to conduct and it is likely to take some considerable time to come to a conclusion."

In Ireland, RTE News reported that Global Trailer Rentals had confirmed it owned the trailer in which the bodies were found and that it leased the unit out on Oct 15. It said it had given police the details of the person and the company that rented it.

ALSO READ: British police find 39 dead in truck container, arrest driver

On Thursday, members of the public expressed their horror at the deaths and sympathy for the victims at vigils in London and Belfast. Candles were lit and banners held up, including one that read "No borders, no deaths", and others that stated "These walls must fall down", and "Migrants and refugees welcome here".

On Friday, the Daily Mail reported that the victims had been in the trailer for a minimum of 15 hours, but could have been there for days. The newspaper also said they likely froze to death or suffocated, and reported that officials in Belgium said the trailer was sealed before it reached Zeebrugge at 2:49 pm on Tuesday.

The Times reported that the Port of Purfleet is a well-known destination for illegal immigrants.

The newspaper quoted a former port security guard as saying people smuggling is so well-organized that minibuses meet migrants at the port's main gate.

"The port comes alive at around 2 am," the paper quoted one witness as saying. "I've seen groups of migrants walking out the front gate ... When there's a group of them, a few security guards on a minimum wage aren't going to stop them."

Many ports now use heat scanners to look inside locked trailers.

The Daily Mail quoted an unnamed security official as saying: "Thermal imaging equipment doesn't work on refrigerated containers. They are simply too cold, and you can't pick up any heat that might be coming from somebody hidden inside."

The Bishop of Bradwell, John Perumbalath, the most senior Church of England clergyman in south Essex, where the trailer was found, said: "This is really heartbreaking news and our thoughts and prayers are with all the loved ones and families of those who lost their lives in this tragic way ... I wish and pray that no one will ever have to undertake a journey to their death like this and that we, as a global family, learn how to make life safer for everyone."

China has urged nations to cooperate to counter human smuggling.

Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said, "I think that no matter where these victims come from, this is a great tragedy which drew the attention of the international community to the issue of illegal immigration."

Hua said nations should strengthen cooperation, "strengthen the sharing of information and intelligence in this regard, and conduct early intervention in these activities, so as to prevent such tragedies from happening again".

In 2000, 58 Chinese migrants died from asphyxiation in a refrigerated truck in Dover, southeast England.


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