The programme contains testimonies of first responders and interviews with families in Vietnam who speak of loss of their loved ones
The mother of a 26-year-old Vietnamese migrant who suffocated to death in a sweltering, airtight refrigerated container driven by Irish lorry drivers still can’t read her daughter’s dying message.
A new BBC documentary, Hunting the Essex Lorry Killers, contains harrowing testimony from first responders and police officers who carried out the painstaking hunt for the Irish Romanian gang responsible for the death of 39 Vietnamese migrants in a container that travelled from France to Essex nearly two years ago.
The film crew also travel to Vietnam where the heartbroken families tell of their last contact with their loved ones and the legacy of still struggling to pay the crippling debts they acquired to give their relatives a chance for a new life in Britain.
The last text sent by a beautiful Vietnamese woman, Pham Thi Tra My, from the container is on her mother’s phone.
It reads: 'I am really sorry mum and dad
'My trip to a foreign land has failed
'I still love you so much
'I'm dying because I can't breathe
'Mum I'm sorry.'
In Vietnam, her mother rubs her face repeatedly as she says: “Her text message is still on my phone, but I don’t dare look at it, only my husband and sons are able to. I don’t dare look at her pictures even once.”
She told how it took ten days for her daughter to travel from Vietnam to China, and then another day or so to fly to France. When she got to France, they transferred $22,000 to the people traffickers. They were told she would be travelling VIP class.
“I had no idea what VIP class meant”, said her mother.
Many of their families borrowed heavily to fund their passage, relying on their potential future earnings once they got into the UK.
“She hoped to work overseas for a few years and then come home.
“At the moment we still owe $22,000. We can't make plans, we have no dreams, we just try and earn and save what we can to pay the interest for our loans”, her mother tells the documentary makers desolately.
The film starts with grainy CCTV footage of the lorry pulling up at an industrial estate in Essex at 1.13 am on 23 October 2019.
Afterwards, footage shows Northern Irish driver Maurice Robinson opening the back of the lorry, and then on the phone, as audio is played of his 911 call which resulted in one of the UK’s biggest ever police investigations.
Police interviews with Robinson began with him sobbing as he speaks of seeing the bodies in the back of his truck but initially denies any knowledge of people in the container.
The documentary details how a second phone used by Robinson, which was found discarded and smashed in the same Essex industrial estate, along with CCTV footage would ultimately lead the police to the Romanian gang leader Gheorghe Nica.
Spanning Britain, Europe and Vietnam, the film shows how detectives cracked open the multimillion-pound international smuggling ring with its roots in a seemingly innocuous haulage business in the heart of Northern Ireland.
In the film, the senior investigating police officer Daniel Stoten, looks bleakly into the camera as he tells how the temperature readings in the refrigerated trailer full of Vietnamese immigrants climbed relentlessly after they were locked into the container in rural France by another Northern Irish lorry driver, Eamonn Harrison, on the morning of October 22, just before 10am.
“After the victims boarded that trailer from Bierne, after they were locked in by Harrison, the temperature slowly began to rise.
“We know when the lorry set from the pick-up point heading toward Zeebrugge, the temperature was 12 degrees, by 11.30 the temperature had gone up to 21 degrees.
“At 3.36 the ship leaves Zeebrugge port, 36 minutes behind schedule, at 6.25 the trailer temperature has risen to almost 35 degrees.
“At 8.02 the last message was recorded on the victim’s phone. The temperature reached its peak at 38.5 degrees between 9.42 and 9.52. And then the temperature slowly started to decrease. And the messages stopped, and the temperature dropped. One by one they were dying.”
A cloud of steam that emerged from the trailer when it was finally opened, caught on CCTV, gives an indication of the sweltering temperatures. 29 men, eight women and two 15-year-old boys were officially confirmed dead. The cause of death was suffocation.
Crucially to the case, a French witness in the documentary details how she saw the Vietnamese migrants dropped off by a taxi near a hay barn before watching them hopping into the back of the truck.
But it was the extraordinary role of a witness known only as 'Witness X', which helped bring down the gang.
The Vietnamese immigrant, who gave evidence under a high level of protection as he feared for his life and the lives of his family, gave a full account of being smuggled across the English Channel from France by the same gang in 2019.
“His journey was exactly the same as the journey of the 39 except for one detail. 'X' explains there were 15 people in the container he travelled across in, half the number of people than the week later”, said an investigating officer.
The documentary reveals that with twice as many people loaded on the lorry, as usual, the oxygen was running out as the trailer crossed the channel.
CCTV evidence, phone evidence, and witness testimony tracked the people smuggling operation from Vietnam to France and England and pinpointed its ringleaders as Romanian, Gheorghe Nica, and Irish haulier, Ronan Hughes.
After an 11-week trial in the Old Bailey in London, the jury deliberated for a week and found all four suspects guilty of all 39 counts of manslaughter. Maurice Robinson was sentenced to 13 years, Eamon Harrison was sentenced to 18 years and as ringleaders, Ronan Hughes received 20 years and Gheorghe Nica, 27 years.
The documentary revealed four more people were convicted for their part in the smuggling operation and were sentenced to a total of 14.5 years.
In Vietnam, grief-stricken widow, Nguyen Thi Hong, whose husband, Bui Phan Thang, died in the container, reveals she has to keep going for her three children.
“We were struggling to give our children a proper education. Many people around go overseas to get work, we knew people who had already made the journey, we contacted them and they told us how to go about it.
“He said, ‘Daddy doesn’t want to leave Mummy and the children, Daddy doesn’t want to go'.
“The kids miss their dad. The younger child wants to play piggyback with him again.
“There are times when I feel like giving up then I look at my children", she says tearfully.
“They've already lost their dad they couldn't live without their mother. I have to keep going.”
Hunting the Essex Lorry Killers airs Wednesday 13th October at 9pm on BBC Two