Lorry driver ‘devastated’ for families of 39 migrants found dead in container

A lorry driver accused over the deaths of 39 migrants has told jurors he is “devastated” for their families.

Eamonn Harrison, 23, was captured on CCTV as he dropped off a container containing the human cargo at Zeebrugge in Belgium on October 22 last year.

On arrival at Purfleet port in Essex early the next day, the container was picked up by Maurice Robinson who discovered the Vietnamese nationals, aged 15 to 44, had all died.

Harrison, of Newry, Co Down, has denied their manslaughters and being involved in two successful smuggling runs on October 11 and 18 last year.

On Wednesday, Harrison told jurors he had no idea the migrants were there.

Alisdair Williamson QC, defending, said: “We all know that you drove a tractor unit that pulled the trailer that contained 39 people on their way to their deaths. How do you feel about that?”

Harrison replied: “Shite”.

Asked how he felt for the families, he said: “Devastated.”

Mr Williamson “Did you know that there was anyone on your trailer?”

The defendant replied: “No.”

He told jurors he had suffered ADHD at school and found it hard to make friends.

At the age of 18 he followed in his father’s footsteps and got his HGV licence.

In May 2018, he was stopped by Border Force officials who found 18 Vietnamese migrants sitting on boxes of waffles in his trailer.

Asked if he had any idea they were there, Harrison said: “No. I was shocked, you know?”

He told jurors he called his boss Ronan Hughes, who was also shocked.

Eamonn Harrison driving Ronan Hughes’ lorry near the France/Belgium border
Eamonn Harrison driving Ronan Hughes’ lorry near the France/Belgium border

Harrison said he was sent on his way having been issued a civil penalty notice.

In May 2019, Harrison had a crash and wrote off a lorry tractor and trailer, ruining a load of Danish bacon.

He said: “I was not in a good place. I was drinking. I was actually drunk when I had the crash.”

Asked how Hughes reacted, he said: “At first he was concerned. Once he knew I was all right, he was not happy.”

Harrison said he felt “stupid” over the incident, which caused a lot of damage.

The defendant said he went to Spain to stay with his parents and ignored Hughes’ attempts to contact him.

He said: “I owed him money. I just caused him a lot of damage.”

Eventually, Harrison went to see him and Hughes offered him work on a reduced wage to pay off the £16,000 he owed for the damaged lorry, he said.

Hughes also offered him “something else” if he was willing to “load stolen goods”, the defendant said.

Mr Williamson asked: “What is your reaction when Mr Hughes says to you, ‘I would like you to load some stolen goods?’”

Harrison said: “I was not happy about it.”

The lawyer said: “Why did you agree to it?”

The defendant replied: “Because I owed him money.”

He said he would “walk away from the tractor and come back 15 minutes later because I did not want to have anything to do with it”.

Harrison and alleged organiser Gheorghe Nica, 43, of Basildon, Essex, deny 39 counts of manslaughter.

Harrison, lorry driver Christopher Kennedy, 24, of Co Armagh, and Valentin Calota, 37, of Birmingham, have denied people smuggling, which Nica admits.

Jurors have heard that Robinson, 26, of Craigavon in Northern Ireland, and Hughes, 41, of Co Armagh, have admitted the manslaughters.