A journey to death in a container: What we know so far about the 39 Chinese victims found in a truck in UK

VIDEO: REUTERS

LONDON (NYTIMES) - Thirty-nine people were found dead in a refrigerated truck container about 40km east of London early on Wednesday (Oct 23), and the authorities have said that all of the victims are believed to be Chinese citizens.

But at this stage, there are far more questions than answers in what has become a confounding international case: The truck was found near the main freeway encircling Greater London, but was registered in Bulgaria and had come by ferry from Dublin, driven by a man from Northern Ireland, to pick up a container that had come to England via Belgium.

Even the police force leading the investigation acknowledged in a statement on Thursday that "we might not have all of the answers straight away".

Here's a look at what we know and don't know about the case so far.

WHO WAS IN THE TRUCK?

The authorities have said that of the 39 people in the truck, 31 were men and eight were women. They retracted an earlier statement that one of the victims was a teenager.

The identities of the victims remain in question. The authorities have not released any names, and representatives from the Chinese Embassy in London were en route to the scene to assist the authorities.

The circumstances surrounding the deaths strongly suggest that the victims were part of a human-trafficking effort turned deadly, but that has not been confirmed.

HOW DID THE TRUCK GET TO ENGLAND?

The tractor unit and the container arrived in Britain at different ports, according to the authorities. The tractor arrived at Holyhead in Wales on a ferry from Dublin on Sunday, while the container was shipped from Zeebrugge, Belgium, and arrived early on Wednesday at the port of Purfleet, not far from where the bodies were later discovered.



Police drive the lorry container along the road from the scene in Waterglade Industrial Park in Grays, Essex, Britain, on Oct 23, 2019. A total of 39 bodies were discovered inside the lorry container in the early hours of that morning, and pronounced dead at the scene. PHOTO: EPA-EFE
 

The tractor and the container left Purfleet shortly after 1.05am local time, and police were called to an industrial park about 30 minutes later by the local ambulance service. The police have not said who called for an ambulance.

It is not known how the container reached Belgium. Nor is it clear whether the 39 victims were inside before it made its way to England, whether they had all travelled together, how they reached the port in Europe or where the truck was headed.

The police have said that each of the 39 victims will be subjected to a "full coroner's process" to establish a cause of death, and only then will investigators try to identify them.

The process is likely to be further complicated because the victims were probably not carrying identification.

HOW DID THEY DIE?

That is unknown at this point.

If the container unit was turned on, the people inside could have frozen to death, because the unit could reach temperatures as low as minus 25 deg C. If the unit was turned off, they could have suffocated, because there would have been no ventilation.

And there may be other factors that investigators have not found or revealed.

ARE THERE ANY SUSPECTS?

So far there is one: The driver of the truck, a 25-year-old man from Northern Ireland, remains in custody after being arrested on suspicion of murder.

 
 

The police have declined to identify him, but elected officials and the British news media have said he is Morris Robinson, who also goes by the name Mo.

No other suspects have been named, and it is not clear who organised the transport of the victims.

It is also not known whether Robinson knew what was in the container he was hauling. Such containers sent to Britain from Europe are typically sealed and are not opened until they reach their delivery point.

In addition, the police said that three properties in County Armagh, in Northern Ireland, had been searched in connection with the investigation. It is not clear whether they were linked to the driver.