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Northern Irish man arrested at Stansted Airport as part of Essex lorry probe

In all, four people have now been arrested in connection with the lorry deaths.

The truck in which 39 people were found dead earlier this week.
The truck in which 39 people were found dead earlier this week.
Image: PA

Updated Oct 25th 2019, 6:14 PM

A VIETNAMESE WOMAN who is feared to be among 39 migrants found dead in a lorry in Essex sent a text to her family saying she was suffocating on Tuesday night. 

The family of Pham Tra My (26) told the BBC they had paid £30,000 (€34,700) for her to be smuggled to Britain but have not been able to contact her since she sent a text on Tuesday night saying she was suffocating.

It comes as a man and a woman, both aged 38 and from Warrington, Cheshire, were arrested on suspicion of 39 counts of manslaughter and people trafficking earlier today. 

This evening, police confirmed a 48-year-old from Northern Ireland was arrested at Stansted Airport on suspicion of conspiracy to traffic people and on suspicion of manslaughter.

Police said the eight women and 31 men were all believed to be Chinese nationals, but several Vietnamese families fear their relatives may be among the dead.

A spokesman from the Vietnamese Embassy in the UK said it has contacted police in regard to Pham Tra My.

The BBC said the families of two other Vietnamese people – a 26-year-old man and a 19-year-old woman – had contacted the broadcaster, fearing their relatives might have been in the container.

The driver of the truck, named locally as 25-year-old Mo Robinson, from Northern Ireland, remains in custody after he was held on suspicion of murder.

police-container Key locations in the deaths of 39 people. Source: PA Graphics

This evening, Essex Police deputy chief constable Pippa Mills said: “We have begun the process of transporting the victims from the Port of Tilbury to the mortuary at Broomfield Hospital. Formal identification processes will take place as well as the examinations to establish the causes of their deaths.

This process is likely to be a lengthy one, but it is crucial, and we’re working with Her Majesty’s Coroner to ensure the dignity of the victims and the respect for their loved ones is at the forefront of our investigation.

Mills also criticised speculation among the media and on social media surrounding the investigation and said it may hinder the probe’s progress.

39 dead 

On Thursday evening, the first 11 bodies were moved by a private ambulance with a police escort from the port of Tilbury to Broomfield Hospital in Chelmsford, while three more ambulances left the port this afternoon.

Police have not confirmed whether the driver raised the alarm after finding the bodies, while his supporters have set up petitions online calling for his release.

People living close to Purfleet – the port where the container entered the UK – said illegal migrants were a familiar sight.

“It’s a magnet for illegals,” said Janet Lilley. “People would come strolling out of the docks, get in the vans and that’s it, they drive off.”

Lee Tubby who lives opposite the port, said he has seen people “climbing out the top and out the back” of lorries and cutting the plastic roof covering to climb through.

“We’ve had people just come out of the port knocking on the door asking for shoes, asking for water,” he said.

It is not yet known when the victims entered the sealed refrigerated trailer, where temperatures can be as low as -25 degrees Celsius, or the exact route it travelled.

Mike Gradwell, a former Lancashire Police detective superintendent who worked on the probe into the Morecambe Bay cockling tragedy in which 23 Chinese illegal immigrants drowned, told BBC Breakfast that those inside could have been trafficked by a Snakehead gang.

“These are criminal travel agents really – you go to a Snakehead to say you want to be trafficked to an economic opportunity and usually you’ll borrow quite a significant amount of money,” he said.

Belgian officials said the trailer arrived at Zeebrugge at 2.49pm on Tuesday and left the port the same day en route to Purfleet.

Joachim Coens, chief executive of Zeebrugge port, said it was unlikely people were loaded into the container at the Belgian site, while mayor Dirk De Fauw, who is also the chairman of the port, said it was “virtually impossible” the victims went into the trailer at the Belgian border.

The trailer arrived at Purfleet at around 12.30am on Wednesday, and the front section to which it was attached, known as the tractor, came from Northern Ireland via Holyhead in North Wales on Sunday.

The lorry and trailer left the port at Purfleet shortly after 1.05am, and officers were called to the Waterglade Industrial Park on Eastern Avenue in Grays at 1.40am.

Irish company Global Trailer Rentals Ltd (GTR) confirmed it owned the refrigerated part of the lorry and a spokesman said the company was “shellshocked” and “gutted” by the news.

The firm said the trailer had been leased on 15 October from its rentals yard in Co Monaghan, in the Republic of Ireland, at a rate of €275 a week.

It said it provided police with information about the person and company that leased the trailer, as well as offering to make tracking data available.

Three addresses have been searched in Northern Ireland as part of the probe, while warrants were also carried out in Cheshire.

China has called for joint efforts to counter human smuggling, while vigils have been held in London and Belfast to pay tribute to the victims.

With Sean Murray

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