Couple who died in Essex lorry left their young children in Vietnam

‘Even when they died they were together’: Heartbreaking story of couple who left their young children in Vietnam to set up new life in the UK – as heartbroken parents reveal pair were holding hands when they died in back of Essex lorry

  • Nguyen Thi Van and Tran Hai Loc were found holding hands inside lorry trailer
  • Couple were huddled together when they were discovered among the 39 dead 
  • The pair leave behind their son Thang, seven, and five-year-old daughter Trang

A couple who placed their trust in a smuggling gang offering them the false promise of a new life were found dead together, holding hands, in the back of a shipping container. 

Tran Hai Loc and Nguyen Thi Van were still huddled together when they were discovered among the 39 dead Vietnamese migrants on October 23 last year.  

The couple, both 35, were found with their hands entwined, having suffocated in their airtight container as the temperature soared to 38.5C (101.3F).

After the smugglers responsible for killing the 39 migrants were jailed, the story of Tran and Nguyen came to light.  

Their bodies were carefully removed from the trailer, still holding hands, and taken to hospital, where they stayed together throughout the post-mortems.

Their families have since revealed how the couple had left their son, seven, and five-year-old daughter in the care of their grandparents, in order to build a new life for the family in the UK. 

Van’s family showed ITV pictures of the young couple posing together at the airport on the day they left Vietnam. 

They are standing with two trolleys filled with luggage; clearly unaware they will be forced to leave it behind at some point in their deadly journey. 

Six weeks later, they were found dead in the back of the lorry in Essex.  

The young couple are posing together here at the airport on the day they left Vietnam. They are standing with two trolleys filled with luggage; clearly unaware they will be forced to leave it behind at some point in their deadly journey

Tran Hai Loc and Nguyen Thi Van were still huddled together when they were discovered among the 39 dead Vietnamese migrants on October 23 last year

The couple had left their son, seven, and five-year-old daughter in the care of their grandparents, in order to build a new life for the family in the UK

The couple, both 35, were found with their hands entwined, having suffocated in their airtight container as the temperature soared to 38.5C (101.3F)

A graphic used by Essex Police illustrating location of the 39 bodies found inside a container lorry in Grays, Essex

Six people have been convicted after 39 men, women and children, aged 15 to 44, were found dead in the back of a lorry when it stopped in Thurrock, Essex, in October last year, after it had travelled into the UK from the port of Zeebrugge

At 1.07am, Robinson collected the trailer, some 12 hours after it was sealed. He was instructed by Hughes via Snapchat to ‘give them air quickly don’t let them out’.

Who has been convicted in the Essex lorry death case? 

Eamonn Harrison, 23

  • Guilty of 39 counts of manslaughter
  • Guilty of conspiracy to assist unlawful immigration

Gheorghe Nica, 43

  • Guilty of 39 counts of manslaughter
  • Admits conspiracy to assist unlawful immigration

Valentin Calota, 37

  • Guilty of conspiracy to assist unlawful immigration

Christopher Kennedy, 24

  • Guilty of conspiracy to assist unlawful immigration

Maurice Robinson, 26

  • Admits 39 counts of manslaughter
  • Admits conspiracy to assist unlawful immigration

Ronan Hughes, 41

  • Admits 39 counts of manslaughter 
  • Admits conspiracy to assist unlawful immigration

The couple 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.

Former Detective Chief Inspector Martin Pasmore, who dealt with their identification, 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.

‘They stayed together throughout the transportation to hospital and they stayed together throughout the post-mortems.’

Van and Loc were among some 39 Vietnamese men, women and children, aged between 15 and 44, who were found dead in the back of a trailer in Essex on October 23 last year. 

Yesterday, those responsible for their deaths were convicted for manslaughter and people smuggling offences after a 10-week trial at the Old Bailey.  

Speaking to ITV News about losing their daughter and their son-in-law, Van’s family revealed the couple left their young children with their grandparents as they went to build a better life. 

The children, who would have joined them in the UK once safe, do not yet know their parents have died. 

Tran’s father Tran Dinh Thanh, is looking after his orphaned grandchildren in Vietnam. 

He told the Mirror: ‘They are not old enough to be aware of this loss.

‘They repeatedly asked why their parents haven’t come home for a long time. Because I didn’t want to lie, I just answered briefly: ‘Your parents are living in heaven.’

Video played to the court showed the moment officers arrived on scene in Essex and (inset) body cam footage shows an officer looking for signs of life inside the lorry. Driver Maurice Robinson called 999 after discovering the bodies in his lorry

Maurice Robinson’s trailer and tractor unit after it had been taken into evidence as part of the manslaughter investigation

CCTV shows police arriving at the scene where Maurice Robinson (top right) had found the bodies in the back of his lorry

A photo showing pole marks inside the lorry trailer after migrants attempted to make air holes shortly before they suffocated

‘They were frothing at the mouth’: PC describes horror moment he found bodies in back of lorry 

A police officer described the moment he discovered the half-naked bodies of 39 migrants, some of whom were ‘frothing at the mouth’, in the back of the lorry.

Pc Emerson said: ‘I could see one of the trailer doors was already open and I could visibly see numerous half-naked bodies in the back of the trailer, lying on the trailer floor motionless.

‘I approached the door of the trailer to further inspect the bodies and it became apparent as I got closer that the entire trailer was full of bodies, and the individuals appeared to be half-naked.

‘Most of them were wearing clothes on their lower half but they all appeared to not be wearing any clothing on their upper half.

‘All of the bodies appeared intact and it was in my opinion that they had not been there for a very long period of time.

‘There was however a strange smell coming from the trailer that smelt like chemicals.’

Pc Emerson said he got inside the trailer to search for any signs of life, checking pulses and for breathing.

He said the bodies were ‘closely packed’ together, mainly lying on their backs. 

‘Due to how packed together the bodies were in the trailer it was not possible to check every body so I made an attempt to check the bodies I could reach.’

He said some of them appeared to be ‘frothing from the mouth’ and some were warm.

The court heard all 39 victims were declared dead at the scene.

Van’s brother, Nguyen Xuan Thuy, told ITV: ‘We didn’t know they were found hand-in-hand until now. 

‘They loved each other very much. Anything they did, anywhere they went, they were always together.

‘Now I know that even when they died, and before they left this world, they were still together. They still showed their love. It takes some of the pain away for our family.’

The couple had paid around £30,000 for the journey, on the premise of getting jobs in a nail bar in the UK. 

The family said the pair were ‘seeking a better future for their family, so their children would have a better life and a better education.’

Their son and daughter remain with their elderly grandparents. 

Thuy added the smugglers passed themselves off as ‘travel agents’ offering hope to people who would not qualify, or be able to afford, a legal UK entry-visa.

He added: ‘Only after the tragedy happened, I learned that they actually went by lorry. 

‘Our family has investigated and found that there are still many travel agents operating to take people to the UK illegally.’ 

Members of the million-pound people-smuggling ring could be facing life behind bars for the manslaughter of the 39 migrants. 

Photographs from inside the lorry’s trailer show gouge marks in the roof where some of the migrants had attempted to use a metal pole to create air holes so they could escape the sweltering heat and suffocating conditions.

Meanwhile, an illustration created by police has revealed the scale of the cramped conditions and how the bodies were piled up inside the trailer when the horrific discovery was made.

The migrants had suffocated in sweltering temperatures as the airtight container was shipped from Zeebrugge to Purfleet.

The ‘unscrupulous’ gang behind the illegal shipment were motivated by greed as they pursued profits of more than £1 million that month alone.

Following the 10-week trial, Romanian ringleader Gheorghe Nica, 43, from Basildon, and lorry driver Eamonn Harrison, 24, from County Down, were found guilty 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 group of migrants were were from five provinces in the central, coastal area of Vietnam and two provinces near Hanoi

Driver Maurice Robinson (pictured), 26, who first discovered the deaths, had already admitted 39 counts of manslaughter

Who were the key players in the Essex lorry deaths case

Gheorghe Nica

Gheorghe Nica was the leader of the people smuggling ring

Romanian Nica was said to be the ‘key organiser’.

A friend and ex-colleague of Irish haulage boss Ronan Hughes, he spent years working in Ireland and England as a lorry driver and mechanic.

The 43-year-old was also involved in the ‘large scale’ smuggling of cigarettes and whisky, according to Valentin Calota.

Nica, who knew the lorry yards in Essex well, paid Calota and others in the Romanian community cash in hand to drive migrants to London under his close supervision.

He also employed his Romanian friend Alexandru-Ovidiu Hanga, 28, of Tilbury in Essex, who admitted his role in the gang.

Nica’s senior management position meant he was trusted to look after the money, the prosecution said. 

The divorced father-of-three, from Basildon in Essex, admitted involvement in two successful runs but denied he was a ringleader, pointing the finger at his Romanian friend Marius Draghici and Hughes.

The defendant, who had joint British citizenship, claimed he had been roped in to help while he awaited new passports.

Nica told jurors the family had decided to move back to Romania to get treatment for his young daughter who was born prematurely and suffered from cerebral palsy.

On October 23, he agreed to allow Maurice Robinson to unload near Collingwood Farm, assuming it was cigarettes or alcohol, he claimed.

Ronan Hughes

Ronan Hughes

Logistics boss Hughes had been a lorry driver before he set up his own haulage business, operating on either side of the Irish border.

In 2009, he was jailed for 30 months for smuggling some six million cigarettes from Calais to Dover.

He admitted evading revenue of around £927,000 and was sentenced at Maidstone Crown Court, it can now be reported.

A decade later, the 41-year-old married defendant, of Dalton Park, Armagh, Co Armagh, recruited a team of young Irish lorry drivers to take on the riskiest roles in the people-smuggling operation while directing them via burner phones.

He got his hands dirty on October 18 last year when he tried to cover up human contamination in a load of biscuits with Christopher Kennedy.

He knew there was a serious risk to the 39 migrants on October 22, telling lorry driver Maurice Robinson, who picked them up, to ‘give them air quickly’ – but not to let them out.

Hughes pleaded guilty to manslaughter and people-smuggling in August. 

Eamonn Harrison

Eamonn Harrison

The 24-year-old lorry driver, from Newry, Co Down, was said to be Hughes’ ‘man on the Continent’.

On each of the three people-smuggling runs, it was Harrison who picked up migrants and took them in trailers to Zeebrugge in Belgium to be shipped to the UK.

Described in court as ‘young, heavy-drinking and irresponsible’, Harrison had struggled with ADHD at school and at the age of 18 followed in his father’s footsteps and became an HGV driver.

In May 2018, he was handed a civil penalty notice after Border Force officials at Coquelles in France found 18 Vietnamese migrants sitting on boxes of waffles in his trailer.

Having been stopped twice in Germany in 2018 over driving incidents, in May last year he lost control of Hughes’ lorry in Lower Saxony.

He was convicted of drink-driving and ordered to pay 855 euros (£768), which remains outstanding.

The crash meant Hughes had Harrison ‘over a barrel’ because he owed him thousands of pounds for the damage, jurors were told.

Harrison, who described being lonely on the road, claimed he did not know about the migrants in his trailer on any occasion, saying he thought he was helping to pick up ‘stolen lorry parts’ for Hughes.

He blamed others for loading the migrants into his trailer, saying he watched Netflix in his cab with the curtains down when the 39 migrants boarded.

But a migrant transported on October 11 said the driver had told them to huddle together before dropping them at Zeebrugge.

Harrison told jurors he was ‘devastated’ for the families of the victims.

Christopher Kennedy

Christopher Kennedy

‘Team player’ Kennedy, from County Armagh, was another of Hughes’ drivers, even though his actual boss was Irish haulier, Caolan Gormley, who was arrested and released under investigation.

The 24-year-old’s role was to pick up the human cargo at Purfleet docks and take them to Orsett for onward transfer to London on the two successful runs.

In between those trips, he was also caught with 20 Vietnamese people in his trailer at Coquelles in France on October 14 last year – two of whom ended up among the 39 dead days later.

On the day of the tragedy, it was Kennedy who Hughes called within seconds of finding out from Robinson that 39 migrants had died in one of his trailers.

And asked by a friend what he thought had happened, he said there ‘must have been too many and run out of air’.

Growing up on a small holding in Keady, Kennedy felt the pressure of being the oldest of four siblings, particularly after his father had an accident and could no longer work.

But he racked up three driving offences from the age of 13 when he was caught behind the wheel of a tractor illegally.

It meant that, despite gaining his HGV licence at the age of 19, finding work was challenging.

In June last year, Mr Gormley, also from County Armagh, gave him a job driving goods around England for £550 a week.

Kennedy claimed he agreed to shift illegal cigarettes for ‘extra cash’ and did not realise there were migrants.

He became suspicious when he helped Hughes tidy up soiled biscuits on October 18 last year but said the haulage boss ‘shrugged it off’.

Maurice Robinson

Maurice Robinson

The 26-year-old lorry driver, from Craigavon in Northern Ireland, found the bodies of the 39 migrants after he picked up the trailer they were in at Purfleet.

He admitted manslaughter, being part of the people-smuggling gang and acquiring criminal property.

Robinson was tasked with collecting the trailer on October 23 last year and was shown by Nica where to take it in Orsett the night before.

In the 23 minutes before he called 999, he exchanged a series of calls with Hughes and Nica, who in turn alerted other members of the team, including those waiting in Orsett.

When he spoke to Nica, he allegedly told him: ‘I have a problem here – dead bodies in the trailer.’

When he finally rang 999, Robinson claimed he had found the bodies after he heard ‘a noise in the back’, even though the evidence suggested they had been dead for hours.

Valentin Calota

The hired helper, originally from Romania, was paid £700 by Nica to drive a van-load of migrants from Orsett to London on October 18 last year.

The 38-year-old had been living and working as a lorry driver in Bradford, Essex and Birmingham on and off for years.

Calota, who was single and left school at 16, often felt homesick and at times found it difficult to scratch out a living.

His precarious lifestyle led to two cautions in 2011 and 2015.

On July 1 2011, he tried to steal some clothes from Marks & Spencer and was cautioned for shoplifting.

On July 2 2015, he was cautioned for false accounting after he tried to pay for food and beer with a false Coinstar receipt in an Asda in Barking.

Calota knew about Nica’s trade in smuggled cigarettes and alcohol, having met at a barbecue in Orsett in 2017, he said.

He claimed he was duped by Nica and he did not hear or see any migrants on the hour-long journey to London to deliver what he thought were cigarettes.

Calota told jurors: ‘I should not have accepted involvement in any smuggling of cigarettes. I should have minded my own business and I’m very sorry and apologetic.’

Who were the 39 people who died in the Essex lorry container? 

These are the names of the victims of the Essex truck tragedy are: 

 Pham Thi Tra My, a 26-year-old woman from Ha Tinh

Nguyen Dinh Lurong, a 20-year-old man from Ha Tinh

Nguyen Huy Phong, a 35-year-old man from Ha Tinh

Vo Nhan Du, a 19-year-old man from Ha Tinh

Tran Manh Hung, a 37-year-old man from Ha Tinh

Tran Khanh Tho, a 18-year-old man from Ha Tinh

Vo Van Linh, a 25-year-old man from Ha Tinh

Nguyen Van Nhan, a 33-year-old man from Ha Tinh

Bui Phan Thang, a 37-year-old man from Ha Tinh

Nguyen Huy Hung, a 15-year-old boy from Ha Tinh

Tran Thi Tho, a 21-year-old woman from Nghe An

Bui Thi Nhung, a 19-year-old woman from Nghe An

Vo Ngoc Nam, a 28-year-old man from Nghe An

Nguyen Dinh Tu, a 26-year-old man from Nghe An

Le Van Ha, a 30-year-old man from Nghe An

Tran Thi Ngoc, a 19-year-old woman from Nghe An

Nguyen Van Hung, a 33-year-old man from Nghe An

Hoang Van Tiep, a 18-year-old man from Nghe An

Cao Tien Dung, a 37-year-old man from Nghe An

Cao Huy Thanh, a 33-year-old man from Nghe An

Tran Thi Mai Nhung, a 18-year-old woman from Nghe An

Nguyen Minh Quang, a 20-year-old man from Nghe An

Le Trong Thanh, a 44-year-old man from Dien Chau

Pham Thi Ngoc Oanh, a 28-year-old woman from Nghe An

Hoang Van Hoi, a 24-year-old man from Nghe An

Nguyen Tho Tuan, a 25-year-old man from Nghe An

Dang Huu Tuyen, a 22-year-old man from Nghe An

Nguyen Trong Thai, a 26-year-old man from Nghe An

Nguyen Van Hiep, a 24-year-old man from Nghe An

Nguyen Thi Van, a 35-year-old woman from Nghe An

Tran Hai Loc, a 35-year-old man from Nghe An

Duong Minh Tuan, a 27-year-old man from Quang Binh

Nguyen Ngoc Ha, a 32-year-old man from Quang Binh

Nguyen Tien Dung, a 33-year-old man from Quang, Binh

Phan Thi Thanh, a 41-year-old woman from Hai Phong

Nguyen Ba Vu Hung, a 34-year-old man from Thua Tien Hue

Dinh Dinh Thai Quyen, a 18-year-old man from Hai Phong

Tran Ngoc Hieu, a 17-year-old boy from Hai Duong

Dinh Dinh Binh 15-year-old boy from Hai Phong

Hands entwined, a couple comforted each other as their dream of a life in Britain slipped away in the back of a dark, hot trailer.

Tran Hai Loc and Nguyen Thi Van, both 35, were still huddled together when they were discovered among the 39 dead on October 23 last year.

Their bodies were carefully removed from the trailer, still holding hands, and taken to hospital together.

The couple 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 7,000 US dollars (£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 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, aged 15 to 44, 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.

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.

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.

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