AS she gasped for breath in a sweltering lorry trailer, Pham Thi Tra My frantically texted and tried to call her mother.

But her cries for help went unanswered and Tra My died before her mother – Nguyen Thi Phong – could reply. 


The 26-year-old was one of 39 Vietnamese migrants who suffocated in a refrigerated container in what is now dubbed the Essex Lorry deaths. 

Speaking on BBC2’s Hunting the Essex Lorry Killers which airs next Wednesday, Phong tells how that moment still haunts her. 

The mum-of-three said: “Her text message is still in my phone but I don’t dare look at it. I haven’t dared look at it since. 

“Only my husband and sons are able to. I don’t even dare to look at her pictures, even once.”

The devastating final words from Tra My read: “I am really really sorry mum and dad.

"My trip to a foreign land has failed. Mummy, I still love you so much. 

“I’m dying because I can’t breathe. Mum I’m sorry.”

Two years on Phong has told how daughter Tra My’s death has left the family with “no dreams”.

The family are still in tens of thousands of pounds of debt from costs of smuggling her from France to the UK.

Phong continued: “She hoped to work overseas for a few years and then come back.

“We knew she wanted to travel onwards but we didn’t know what means of transportation would be used.

"We only knew that she would be travelling VIP class. I had no idea what VIP class meant. Only now do I know what to travel VIP is.”

Tra My was loaded into the back of a truck parked in a field in Bierne, France.

Phong said: “At the moment we still owe $22,000 [about £17,000]. We can’t make plans. We have no dreams. 

“We just try and earn and save what we can to pay off the interest from our loans.”

'There are times when I feel like giving up'

Almost all the migrants heading to the UK were hoping to find work in order to send money back home to improve the lives of their families. 

It is thought 70,000 migrants are illegally smuggled into Britain each year. 

Another family who knows this all too well is Nguyen Thi Hong and her husband Bui Phan Thang.

After ten years together, the couple were struggling to make ends meet for their three kids.

Together, they made the difficult decision for him to leave home and work abroad while sending money back home. 

Thang left on September 6, 2019, and would call up to ten times a day to spend time chatting with his wife and children. 

His search started in Germany but when he struggled to find work, he decided to risk passage to England. 

The pair last spoke on October 21 that year, with his wife calling him the day after but she was unable to get hold of him. 

She discovered her husband might be dead while looking at the news as her children got dressed for school days later. 

Through tears, Hong said: “While I was waiting for them to get dressed I was browsing on my phone and I saw that some people had died in a lorry.

"I thought he might have been on that journey.”

Their three children are still missing their father and want him to come back so they can play together. 

Hong said: “There are times when I feel like giving up, but then I look at my children.

"They have already lost their dad. They couldn’t live without their mother. I have to keep going.”

£16k price tag for deadly journey

The illegal trip, arranged by an organised crime gang, normally took 15 migrants per lorry. 

On October 23rd they crammed 39 men, women and children into the refrigerated truck.

Each had paid upwards of £16,200 for their spot in the death trap. 

When the lorry left Bierne in France the temperature was around 12 degrees.

It slowly climbed from the mass of bodies, causing the migrants to strip off in a bid to stay cool, before it peaked at 38.5 degrees at sometime between 9.42pm and 9.52pm.

By this point the crooks and their cargo were in British waters. As the people in the back started to die from lack of oxygen, the temperature dropped back down.

The last message sent by one of the victims was at 8.02pm.

CCTV footage shows how driver Maurice Robinson discovered the bodies and phoned for an ambulance.

But the tapes also show how he waited 23 minutes before calling 999 and drove the lorry to another spot.

At first he claimed to have no prior knowledge of what was inside the trailer but admitted to throwing away his phone.

As pressure mounted Robinson changed tact and repeatedly told cops "no comment" through tears.

'I saw a group of bodies on the floor' 

Eventually he gave a statement through his lawyer of his involvement. 

It read: “I was made aware that the trailer I had to collect had people inside. I was told where to drop off the people. 

“After collecting the trailer I wanted to make sure that the people inside were comfortable so I stopped on Eastern Avenue after about a five or six minute drive. 

“I opened the back door of the trailer expecting to see people but I saw a group of bodies on the floor. 

“I was in a state of panic and did not know what to do. So I drove around for several minutes in a state of shock. I called an ambulance and waited for them to arrive. 

“I am absolutely devastated for the poor people who have died and their families.

“I am very concerned for the safety of my family and myself if the organisers find out what has happened since my arrest.”

In January, Robinson pleaded guilty to 39 counts of manslaughter and was sentenced to 13 years in prison.

His co-conspirators Eamonn Harrison, haulier boss Ronan Hughes and British-Romanian mastermind Gheorge Nica and four others were all caged for their involvement.

'I'd lost everything'

Officers who were first on scene described opening the doors to see a mass of naked bodies inside. 

One of them was Nguyen Dinh Luong, 20, whose family had taken out loans and sold livestock to fund his move abroad. 

He had travelled from Vietnam to Russia, into the Ukraine before heading to France via Germany.

Luong hoped that a job abroad would enable him to provide for his family – instead it cost his life. 

Dedicated Luong had worked for other Vietnamese people in Europe and often slept in the same restaurants he served in during the day. 

His father, who learnt of his death through a phone call, said: “I’d lost my son. I’d lost everything.”

The trafficking route had been used countless times before by the people smuggling gang. 

Essex Police were able to track down another migrant thanks to a fingerprint in a different lorry owned by the same company. 

Due to fears for their safety, they can only be known as Witness X.

In a police statement, they said: “I believe the people involved in bringing us to the UK are like the mafia. They are organised criminals. They are very dangerous.

“I fear that if they know I am providing police information that they will harm my family in Vietnam.”

Witness X was brought over a week before the deaths and had travelled with 15 other people. 

They are organised criminals. They are very dangerous.

They described how the driver helped them into the back of the lorry in Belgium, which had no lights and a bucket was placed in the corner for going to the toilet. 

It took them eight hours to complete the journey, they said, with many other migrants opting to sleep. 

It was Witness X’s account which proved to police that the drivers knew about the human cargo in the back. 

They also gave a location eight miles away from Purfleet dock where the migrants were dropped.

The extensive police investigation, led by Detective Chief Inspector Daniel Stoten, was able to secure convictions of the four men directly involved and several others in the same gang.

But the scale took its toll on DCI Stoten and he stepped back from homicide cases.

He said: “This has been such a journey, physically and emotionally.

“I had some periods of time where I found myself in a really dark place. My time is done now on this type of enquiry. I took the decision that this would be my last homicide investigation.”

But for the victims' families, the effects of the tragic events are far from over.

Hunting the Essex Lorry Killers, is on next Wednesday at 9pm on BBC Two




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