NGHE AN (Vietnam) • Most of the 39 people found dead in the back of a truck near London were likely to be from Vietnam, a community leader from the rural, rice-growing community where many of the victims are believed to have come from said yesterday.
Father Anthony Dang Huu Nam, a Catholic priest in the remote town of Yen Thanh in northern-central Vietnam's Nghe An province, 300km south of Hanoi, told Reuters he was liaising with family members of the victims.
"The whole district is covered in sorrow," Father Nam said, as prayers for the dead rang out over loudspeakers throughout the misty, rain-soaked town yesterday. "I'm still collecting contact details for all the victims' families, and will hold a ceremony to pray for them tonight. This is a catastrophe for our community."
Father Nam said families told him they knew relatives were travelling to Britain at the time the container truck would have been travelling and had been unable to contact their loved ones.
The bodies were discovered on Wednesday after emergency services were alerted to people in a truck container on an industrial site in Grays, about 32km east of central London. Police said initially that they believed the dead were Chinese but Beijing said the nationalities had not yet been confirmed.
Chinese and Vietnamese officials are now working closely with British police, their respective embassies have said.
Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc yesterday ordered an investigation into human trafficking allegations.
Police in the county of Essex declined to elaborate as to how they first identified the dead as Chinese, but said they would not give any more details about the identities or nationalities of the victims until the formal identification process has taken place. All the bodies have been recovered from the truck, with post-mortems under way.
In Yen Thanh, Nghe An province, dozens of worried relatives of 19-year-old Bui Thi Nhung gathered in the family's small courtyard home where her worried mother has been unable to rise from her bed. "She said she was in France and on the way to the UK, where she has friends and relatives," said her cousin, Ms Hoang Thi Linh.
"We are waiting and hoping it's not her among the victims, but it's very likely. We pray for her every day. There were two people from my village travelling in that group."
In comments under a photo uploaded to Ms Nhung's Facebook account on Monday, two days before the doomed truck was discovered, one friend asked how her journey was going.
Another person who may have died is Mr Nguyen Dinh Tu, who had been working illegally in Romania and Germany, where he lost his job.
A few months ago, he asked his wife Hoang Thi Thuong to help him raise £11,000 (S$19,200) to cover the cost of an illicit trip from Germany to Britain. "I lost contact with him on Oct 21," Ms Thuong told Reuters. "I have a big debt to pay, no hope, and no energy to do anything."
Mr Tu's father said relatives in Britain had told him that Mr Tu was inside the truck, and had been planning to pick him up.
DROWNING IN GRIEF
The whole district is covered in sorrow. I'm still collecting contact details for all the victims' families, and will hold a ceremony to pray for them tonight. This is a catastrophe for our community.
FATHER ANTHONY DANG HUU NAM, a Catholic priest in the Vietnamese town of Yen Thanh, on the impact of the news.
"They were supposed to pick him up at the drop-off point but they called and said Tu was in that truck," Mr Tu's father, Mr Nguyen Dinh Sat, told Reuters. "I haven't heard anything from my son."
Meanwhile, Mr Nguyen Dinh Gia told Agence France-Presse he received a call from his son two weeks ago saying he was planning to go to Britain where he hoped to work in a nail salon. His 20-year-old son Nguyen Dinh Luong had been living in France.
But Mr Gia received a call several days ago from a Vietnamese man saying "Please have some sympathy, something unexpected happened", he recounted to AFP.
"I fell to the ground when I heard that," Mr Gia said. "It seemed that he was in the truck with... all of them dead," he added.
Another suspected victim is 26-year-old Pham Thi Tra My, who had sent a text message to her mother saying she loved her and that she could not breathe at about the time the truck container was en route from Belgium to Britain.
"I'm sorry Dad and Mom. The way I went overseas was not successful," she had written. "Mom, I love Dad and you so much. I'm dying because I can't breathe."
Her parents, who make around US$400 (S$545) a month, told CNN that they had paid smugglers around US$40,000 for their daughter to travel to Britain for a better life.
How the victims came to be in the truck is not yet known. The BBC reported yesterday that the 25-year-old driver of the truck has been charged with manslaughter, people trafficking, and immigration and money-laundering offences.
On Friday, police said they had also arrested three other people suspected of conspiracy to traffic people and manslaughter.
Yesterday, police in Ireland said a man in his early 20s from Northern Ireland had been arrested at Dublin port after arriving on a ferry from France on suspicion of involvement in the deaths of the 39 people.
REUTERS, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE