THE heartbreaking final moments of 39 migrants crying for help and gasping for air before they died in a lorry were played in court today.
Drivers Eamonn Harrison, 23, and Maurice Robinson, 26, together with Romanian fixer Gheorghe Nica, 43, were paid by kingpin Ronan Hughes, 40, to ferry non-EU citizens into the UK.
The multi-million pound run from Zeebrugge in Belgium to Purfleet in Essex was so well established that Hughes could charge his human cargo £14,000 a head.
Hughes packed as many migrants as he dared into each badly ventilated container and 28 men, eight women and three children suffocated on the final run as temperatures inside soared to 38.5C.
Some tried to batter their way out with a pole as others wrote final heart-breaking text messages to relatives and partners as those around them sobbed in the darkness.
Victim Nguyen Tho Tuan taped a harrowing final message for his family at 7.37pm.
GASPING FOR AIR
The 25-year-old said: “It's Tuan. 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.”
Another victim, Nguyen Dinh Luong, 20, had desperately tried to call Vietnamese emergency services, dialling 133, but phone signal in the trailer had cut out.
Another male victim recorded a message at 8.02pm apologising to his parents and telling them: “I have to go.”
A voice in the background can be heard trying to reassure their compatriots, saying: “Come on everyone, open up, and open up.”
Moments later, another victim said: “He's dead.”
I cannot breathe. I want to come back to my family. Have a good life.”
The original tape, which captures the bravery of the migrants as they realised they were dying, was played before prosecutor Jonathan Polnay translated the messages of the victims.
Translating the first recording Mr Polnay said: “'I'm so sorry' – that's him speaking to his wife and his child – 'I'm sorry' – that's to his mother – 'I'm sorry' – and that's addressed to his whole family. “
Referring to the second message Mr Polnay said: “He says I can't breathe, he says his name, I'm sorry to his parents, I have to go. It's all my fault.”
Frantic heavy breathing and crying can be heard in the background of the audio as the two victims recorded their goodbyes to their loved ones.
Killers Nica and Hughes remained expressionless in the dock as the recording was played.
Robinson briefly bowed his head and then returned to gaze stonily ahead.
Jurors saw horrifying footage of steam gushing from the container which became a tomb as Robinson opened the doors after pulling up in Eastern Avenue, Grays at 1.13am on October 23 last year.
Harrison and Nica were convicted of 39 counts of manslaughter while drivers Christopher Kennedy, 24, and Valentin Calota, 38, were found guilty of assisting illegal immigration by an Old Bailey jury.
Robinson and Hughes earlier admitted the manslaughter and smuggling charges.
Kennedy and Calota were also convicted of their involvement in the international smuggling ring.
Gazmir Nuzi, 42, and Alexandru Hanga, 28, both admitted one count of conspiracy to assist unlawful immigration last year.
The sentencing of the eight smugglers has begun at the Old Bailey today and is expected to last at least two days.
During the trial Calota claimed he had been unable to hear the load of people in the back because he was wearing earphones and listening to the radio on the hour-long trip.
The jury rejected the account and convicted him of his involvement in the conspiracy last month.
Harrison, from Mayobridge, County Down, was convicted of 39 counts of manslaughter and conspiracy to assist unlawful immigration.
Nica, of Basildon, Essex, was convicted of 39 counts of manslaughter. He had admitted one of conspiring to assist unlawful immigration.
Kennedy, of County Armagh, Northern Ireland, and Calota, of Birmingham, were convicted of conspiring to assist unlawful immigration.
Hughes, from Tyholland, Co Monaghan, admitted manslaughter in respect of the 39 deaths and conspiracy to assist unlawful immigration.
Robinson, from Craigavon, County Armagh, admitted manslaughter and conspiracy to assist unlawful immigration and acquiring criminal property.
The sentencing continues.
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