The 39 migrants, locked inside a bitterly cold and airless shipping container, never stood a chance – their cries for help fading away with no one to hear them.
The stowaways – 38 adults and one teenager – slowly died in ‘absolutely horrendous’ conditions after they tried to reach the UK on a cargo ferry from Belgium.
Experts yesterday said the temperature inside the refrigerated trailer unit might have been as low as -25C (-13F).
The migrants were huddled inside for at least 15 hours by the time the door was opened on an industrial estate in Essex at 1.40am yesterday.
In reality, they could have been inside their metal coffin for much longer.
Although paramedics reached the scene minutes after being called out, all they found was a pile of bodies.
he 39 desperate stowaway migrants were locked up in the cabin (above) and it is not yet clear how long they had been stored there for
Mo Robinson is the truck driver arrested after 39 people were found dead in the back of a lorry he was driving
Forensic officers (pictured above) were pictured doing a full sweep of the vehicle after the discovery was made in Essex
Essex police began a murder inquiry yesterday as they attempted to establish who the migrants were and which country they had travelled from.
Like thousands of others before them, the group are thought to have sneaked inside the container at the busy Belgian shipping port of Zeebrugge, where row after row of rectangular metal containers are lined up ready to be transported to the UK.
Police are trying to establish when the group got inside and if smugglers found the container for them and then locked the door behind them.
The container was placed on a cargo ship on Tuesday, which then set sail around 2pm. The choppy Channel crossing took around ten hours before the ship docked at the Essex port of Purfleet on the Thames at 12.30am yesterday.
The lorry was captured at around 1.24am driving down Motherwell Way and a murder investigation has now been launched
Robinson arrived in the UK at the weekend. He picked up the trailer, which had been shipped from Zeebrugge to Purfleet, yesterday evening. Minutes later, he pulled into the Essex industrial estate and the alarm was raised
Police officers bowed their heads as the truck passed. Detectives have begun the process of trying to identify 39 bodies found in a lorry on an industrial estate in Essex
A border force lorry arrives at the Port of Tilbury in Essex where the lorry that 39 bodies were found inside has been moved to
Richard Burnett, chief executive of the Road Haulage Association, said those inside would have frozen to death in horrendous conditions if the refrigeration had been switched on.
‘It’s going to be dark and if the fridge is running it’s going to be incredibly cold,’ he said.
‘The only place to go to the toilet is inside the container. You can imagine if they’ve been in there for days it would be pretty grim.’
Tragedy comes after trafficking gang jailing
Today’s tragedy comes less than a week after a Bulgarian trafficking gang were jailed for keeping women as sex slaves while they lived the high life.
Iliya Mihaylov and Marian Ninov Vasilev
Eleonora Vasileva, 34, Iliya Mihaylov, 31, and Marian Ninov Vasilev, also 34, trafficked women from their home country to squalid east London flats and forced them into a life of prostitution and Class A drug dealing.
Their victims were greeted at the airport, forced to pay £200 and then moved to rented apartments.
The group ran brothels across east London, and victims were rarely allowed to leave their squalid flats.
The women were expected to work 24 hours a day, accepting any ‘clients’ immediately and unconditionally, to whom they were also forced to sell class A drugs.
There is no suggestion the gang were involved in today’s tragedy.
On Tuesday night trucker Maurice ‘Mo’ Robinson, 25, was waiting inside his purple lorry cab at Purfleet docks for the container to be unloaded from the ship.
The self-employed haulier, who lives in the Northern Irish village of Laurelvale in County Armagh, drove out of the port 35 minutes later with it attached to his lorry.
He drove his Scania truck one mile to an industrial estate in Grays, Essex, where he arrived at 1.10am yesterday.
CCTV footage has emerged of the lorry driving towards the Waterglade Industrial Park minutes before the shocking discovery inside the container.
An ambulance control room then received a 999 call informing them of the bodies in the container. Last night police would not reveal if this call was made by Mr Robinson. The East of England Ambulance Service were the first to arrive. Five ambulances, hazardous area response teams and a car from the Essex and Herts Air Ambulance were all dispatched. Essex Police were then called. Minutes later, they arrested Mr Robinson on suspicion of murder.
He remained in police custody last night. Officers are trying to establish if he knew whether the migrants were inside.
The container was removed from the scene yesterday afternoon, with the 39 victims still inside. As it was driven away to a secure location with a police escort, other officers bowed their heads. Last night Mr Robinson’s shaken brother said the family had not heard from him and ‘don’t know what is going on’.
Mr Robinson, who is pictured on social media with a Loyalist flag, is understood to have left the £300,000 home he shares with his pregnant girlfriend – who is said to be expecting twins – on Saturday morning.
He is thought to have driven his lorry cab to Dublin where he drove on to a ferry bound for Holyhead in Wales. Police yesterday confirmed that his lorry arrived on the mainland on Saturday.
It is not known what Mr Robinson did on Sunday, Monday and Tuesday before picking up the container at Purfleet in the early hours of yesterday but at some point he drove the 300 miles to Essex before collecting the container.
His lorry cab is adorned with Celtic harps and the world ‘Ireland’ on the windscreen. Beneath it the phrase ‘the ultimate dream’ has been attached, with a dream catcher hanging inside the cab.
He regularly writes messages on Facebook and Instagram about his truck, referring to it as ‘the Scandinavian Express’ and ‘the Polar Express’.
He is thought to rent it, rather than own it. The lorry carries Bulgarian number plates and is a left-hand drive.
Bulgarian public broadcaster BNR said the lorry was registered in that country on June 19, 2017, by an unnamed Irish woman. It left the Balkan country the next day and has not returned since, according to the Bulgarian authorities.
Last night DUP councillor Paul Berry said Robinson’s family have not been officially told that he has been arrested. ‘I’ve spoken to the family a couple of times,’ he said. ‘At this stage they haven’t been informed of anything – and the police don’t have to in these circumstances. Obviously they [the family] are very distraught. His mother is incredibly distraught as well as his partner.
‘They are just waiting for news. People keep ringing them up and asking “is it true?” but they just don’t know.
‘They contacted police themselves but a sergeant said he couldn’t tell them anything. It does seem unfair. The family at least should know that he has been arrested.’
The container in which the migrants died was rented by an Irish haulage firm called GTR on October 15 from its site in County Monaghan. It was rented for a week for £240.
The company said it was co-operating fully with the UK police. A spokesman said it was ‘gutted’ the trailer had been used in this way. There is no suggestion that GTR has any connection to the deaths of the migrants.
The industrial estate where the lorry was found today is close to the Dartford Crossing and is used as a stopping point for lorries travelling south to the Port of Dover and the Channel Tunnel.
Lithuanian lorry driver Tadas Cesnavicius, who works in the area, said: ‘You see a lot of lorries coming in and out the area, but whether they have people inside who knows? It is terrible to hear it happened right in the next road.’
Additional reporting by Jim Norton and George Olding.
Was Irish smuggling ring behind lorry deaths of 39 migrants? Police raid homes in Ulster as detectives quiz 25-year-old driver over frozen stowaway horror
By Terri-Ann Williams for MailOnline
Police in Northern Ireland raided two properties as detectives continue to quiz a 25-year-old driver following the discovery of 39 frozen migrants in the back of his lorry.
Several officers were pictured outside two properties in the area of Co Armagh, after arresting lorry driver Mo Robinson, 25, from Portadown.
Detectives are now looking into an Irish smuggling ring which has links to the Bulgarian city of Varna, where the truck is registered to.
The two searches are thought to be in relation to Robinson, however sources have now claimed that it is ‘unlikely’ that Robinson was aware of plans to smuggle people across the border.
With his help, detectives are now starting to piece together the fundamentals of the journey, in which the migrants ended up frozen in the back of a lorry coming into the UK.
CCTV shows Robinson’s truck driving into the industrial estate in Essex at 1.10am on Wednesday and police arrived around half an hour later. Neither the nationality of the victims, nor the origin of the container is currently known.
The truck was removed from the scene yesterday afternoon, with the 39 victims still believed to be inside, as police begin the process of identifying them.
Investigations are ongoing and the latest pictures showed two properties in Northern Ireland being raided by police.
Police are pictured outside a property in the Laurelvale area of Co Armagh in Northern Ireland after a murder investigation was launched
Officers were also seen outside this property in the Markethill area (above) as they continue to investigate those thought to be involved
Two officers were seen outside the property in Markethill after the arrest of local man Mo Robinson, 25
While several officers raided a property in Laurelvale, others were also seen outside a property in the Markethill area, where a van had been parked outside.
Other shots show the officers entering one of the properties and going inside.
Detectives now say the refrigerated trailer containing the victims arrived at Purfleet from Zeebrugge in Belgium at around 12.30am on Wednesday while the front section known as the tractor came from Northern Ireland.
The lorry and trailer left the port shortly after 1.05am and officers were called around 30 minutes later after ambulance staff made the grim discovery at Waterglade Industrial Park in Eastern Avenue in nearby Grays.
The vehicle driver, named in reports as 25-year-old Mo Robinson from Portadown in Co Armagh, Northern Ireland, is being held by Essex police on suspicion of murder.
The city of Varna in Bulgaria where it has been reported that the lorry where 39 victims froze to death at Grays in Essex
It is believed that the driver may have alerted the authorities himself and sources close to the investigation last night told The Telegraph that it was ‘unlikely’ he had known about any plans to smuggle people.
This is while it was also discovered that the cab of the truck was registered in Bulgaria in 2017, by an Irish woman.
Bulgarian officials stated that the cab had not been back to the town of Varna for two years.
The area is prolific for its fuel and cigarette smuggling route with links to Irish republican gangs.
This is while the container has been linked to an Irish firm which is headquartered in Dublin, yet is registered in Northern Ireland.
The trailer is understood to be refrigerated, meaning temperatures inside could have been as low as -25C.
Describing the conditions inside, Road Haulage Association chief executive Richard Burnett said, if the was refrigerated was switched on, conditions inside would have been ‘absolutely horrendous’ and would kill anyone inside ‘pretty quickly’.
Mr Burnett added: ‘It’s going to be dark. If the fridge is running it’s going to be incredibly cold.
‘The only place to go to the toilet is on board the back of the trailer. You can imagine if they’ve been in there for days then there will be faeces, there will be urine.’
The deaths will lead to renewed calls for added checks on vehicles entering Britain through so-called ‘soft spot’ ports, with Border Force resources currently focused on Dover.
Speaking on Wednesday afternoon, Deputy Chief Constable Pippa Mills said: ‘In order to ensure we maintain the dignity of the people who sadly lost their lives, we will be moving the lorry and the trailer shortly.’
She said they were being moved to nearby Tilbury Docks so the bodies can be recovered while preserving the dignity of the victims.
‘We are yet to identify them and must manage this sensitively with their families,’ she added.
Her comments come after politicians from all sides of the spectrum pledged to tackle the issues which had risen to the forefront of Prime Minister’s Question’s yesterday.
Jeremy Corbyn (pictured above) also reflected on the tragedy, branding it ‘unbelievable’ during Prime Minister’s Questions
Priti Patel (above) said she would be happy to engage in discussions with the Ministry of Justice following the tragedy
Boris Johnson has said that people traffickers ‘should be hunted down and brought to justice’. As Home Secretary Priti Patel has also pledged for tougher sentences for human traffickers.
Speaking at Prime Minister’s Questions Mr Johnson said the situation was an ‘unimaginable tragedy and truly heartbreaking’.
Putting the Brexit crisis aside, he said the ‘full force of the law’ would come down on those responsible.
He added: ‘I know that the thoughts and prayers of all members will be with those who lost their lives and their loved ones.
‘I’m receiving regular updates. The Home Office will work closely with Essex Police as we establish exactly what has happened.’
Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn also reflected on the tragedy, branding it ‘unbelievable’.
He said: ‘Can we just think for a moment of what it must have been like for those 39 people, obviously in a desperate and dangerous situation, for their lives to end, suffocated to death in a container?’
Ms Patel also highlighted that she would be happy to engage in discussions with the Ministry of Justice in order to see what could be done about the situation.
She said that ‘Home Office immigration officials will be working closely alongside them to establish how this horrific event came to happen.’
Alp Mehmet, the chairman of the group Migration Watch UK, called on the government to better patrol Britain’s borders to ensure such tragedies were not repeated.
He said: ‘People-trafficking is a sickening business. It continues not only because the traffickers make huge amounts of money from it but are also often able to get away with it.
‘The risk is that more such tragedies will occur for so long as the UK fails to properly resource the border and return those who have no right to be here, which all but encourages traffickers to ply their trade by exploiting people who put their lives in their evil hands.’
Despite the investigation being at an early stage and it being unclear where the victims died, the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants has already blamed the British government.
The charity’s chief executive Satbir Singh said: ‘Nobody should be in any doubt that the ultimate responsibility for these deaths lies with government policy which has deliberately closed down safe and legal routes into Britain.’
Bulgarian foreign ministry spokesman Tsvetana Krasteva said: ‘We are in contact with our embassy in London and with British authorities.’
The National Crime Agency (NCA) said: ‘We are aware of this tragic incident which is now the subject of a murder investigation being led by Essex Police and we have deployed NCA officers to assist.
‘We are working with partners including Essex Police and Immigration Enforcement to provide specialist support to urgently identify and take action against any organised crime groups who might have played a role in causing these deaths.’
In 2015, 71 migrants, including eight women and four children, were found dead in the back of a Slovakian meat lorry which was abandoned truck on an Austrian motorway.
The industrial estate where the lorry was found on Wednesday is next to the Dartford Crossing and is used as a stopping point for lorries travelling south to the Port of Dover and the Channel Tunnel, although the planned route of the lorry involved is unknown.
It is the biggest disaster of its kind since 2000, when 58 Chinese stowaways died on a ferry from Belgium to Britain.
The worst disaster since 58 were killed in tomato lorry in Kent
Today’s incident in Essex has chilling echoes of a tragedy 19 years ago in Kent in which 58 Chinese stowaways died on the way from Belgium to Britain.
Customs officers discovered the bodies of 54 men and four women in the back of a tomato lorry which arrived in Dover on June 18, 2000.
The migrants had suffocated after their air vent was closed. Driver Perry Wacker was later jailed for 14 years for manslaughter.
A total of 58 Chinese migrants were killed in 2000 when they suffocated in the back of a tomato lorry arriving at the Port of Dover
The container lorry that carried dead asylum seekers into Dover docks in June 2000
He had shut the trailer’s air vent because he was worried about noise alerting Customs. Detectives believe Wacker would have received around £300 for each immigrant.
In August 2014, 36 Afghan Sikhs, including 15 children, were found inside a shipping container at Tilbury Docks in Essex, close to today’s incident.
One man in the container, Meet Singh Kapoor, 40, died during an overnight crossing from Belgium.
Police said the group, who were part of the Sikh minority in their home country and were fleeing persecution there, had suffered a ‘horrendous ordeal’.
In 2016, two human traffickers were jailed for 17 years after being convicted at Basildon Crown Court of conspiracy to facilitate illegal entry into the UK.
The scene inside the container lorry in which 58 died at Dover in June 2000
The driver of that lorry was later jailed for 14 years for manslaughter. Right: A Daily Mail front page from the tragedy in Dover in 2000
Stephen McLaughlin, 49, and Martin McGlinchey, 36, were sentenced after the court heard Mr Kapoor’s family were forced to watch him die of natural causes.
In October 2001, a van load of 26 Sri Lankan refugees were found near to suffocation at Dover Docks after crossing from Calais in a van on a ferry.
The group, three of them women, were suffering from dehydration and the effects of breathing in fumes when they were discovered by Customs inspectors.
Police said at the time: ‘They had very little air left and time was running out for them. If it had been a little while later they were found, they may not have been alive.’
And in August 2015, 71 migrants including four children and a baby died in the back of a refrigerated lorry which was then dumped at the side of an Austrian motorway.
In 2015, 71 migrants including four children and a baby died in this meat lorry
Migrants from Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan were among the victims who suffocated in the lorry in Hungary before it was found near Parndorf in Austria in 2015.
The group had made their way to the Serbian border with Hungary before being packed into the air-tight poultry lorry. Austrian police later found the bodies piled on top of each other.
The deaths in August 2015 led Germany’s Angela Merkel to say she would open the country’s borders to refugees, eventually allowing in more than one million people.
Today’s incident is thought to be the biggest case of mass murder in Britain for 14 years since the terror attacks on the London transport network on 7/7 in 2005, which left 56 dead including the four suicide bombers.
The death toll is also higher than that of tragedies such as the Manchester Arena bombing in May 2017, which left 23 people dead including attacker Salman Abedi.
The total is also well above that of the Dunblane school massacre near Stirling in Scotland in March 1996 in which 18 people died including shooter Thomas Hamilton.