Police hold driver as body details revealed
UK police will hold the 25-year-old driver of the truck found containing the bodies of 39 Chinese nationals at an industrial estate for a further 24 hours for questioning.
The Northern Ireland man, named as Mo Robinson, has been arrested on suspicion of murder and is being questioned over how the bodies ended up in the back of the refrigerated unit.
The victims include eight women and 31 men who were found dead in the trailer of the truck at Waterglade Industrial Park, Essex, shortly before 1:40am on Wednesday morning. Police previously believed one of the victims to be a teenager but all have been confirmed as adults.
The Chinese ambassador to the UK, Liu Xiaoming said: "We read with heavy heart the reports about the death of 39 people in Essex, England [sic]. We are in close contact with the British police to seek clarification and confirmation of the relevant reports."
Deputy Chief Constable Pippa Mills said: "This is an incredibly sensitive and high-profile investigation, and we are working swiftly to gather as full a picture as possible as to how these people lost their lives."
"Our recovery of the bodies is ongoing and the post-mortem and identification processes, which will be lengthy and complex, can then begin."
"Our number one priority is the preserving the dignity of the 39 people who have died and ensuring that we get answers for their loved ones."
DRIVER TO BECOME A FATHER
Mo Robinson's parents have flown to England to support their son. It's understood he is set to become the father of twins to his long-term girlfriend who lives in Northern Ireland.
Social media posts show the avid football fan had regularly made trips to Europe including to Denmark and Sweden.
One friend described him as a "100 per cent innocent" while another spoke of the "nicest family you could meet."
"I'm telling you now, he wouldn't have known those people were in the back," a friend told Mail Online.
"Apparently he'd parked up at the industrial estate in Essex and had gone to fetch the paperwork from a pocket on the inside of the lorry door.
"When he opened the container up and saw all the dead bodies, he was absolutely horrified - as anyone would be - and called the ambulance service who in turn alerted the police. I heard the container was refrigerated - the temperature was -25C and the bodies were frozen and had been dead for some time."
Another friend told the Evening Standard that Mr Robinson "passed out" after opening the refrigerator door and finding the bodies.
Councillor Paul Berry said the village of Laurelvale, where the family live is in "complete shock." Mr Robinson's father had learned of his son's arrest through social media and had not been informed by police.
"He had said he had been getting messages via people on social media on what was happening and at that stage it was not confirmed to him or his family that his son had been arrested," the councillor said.
"In the local area the feeling is one of complete shock and hope this is not a true story in terms of his involvement."
Mr Berry said the family were "well respected" in the local area and the local community are hoping Mr Robinson has been "caught up innocently in this matter."
Police confirmed three properties in Northern Ireland's County Armagh have been searched in connection with the investigation.
Authorities in the UK are working with counterparts in Belgium and Bulgaria to piece together the chain of events that led to the grisly discovery.
KEY QUESTIONS OVER CONTAINER MOVEMENTS
A number of questions remain unanswered about the container and where the victims came from.
Police confirmed the tractor unit of the truck - which includes the driver's cab - entered the UK via Holyhead on Sunday 20 October, having travelled from Dublin.
It then collected the trailer, which had travelled from Zeebrugge, Belgium, at the port of Purfleet at around 12:30am on the 23 October.
The cab and trailer left the port shortly after 1.05am - around 35 minutes before police were called to the estate by emergency services.
Earlier in the day, the container arrived at the Zeebrugge port at 2:49pm local time just hours before it was moved to the UK.
Authorities in Belgium said it is not known when the victims were placed in the container and whether it happened in Belgium or at an earlier destination.
Prosecution spokesman Eric Van Duyse said Thursday that "up till now, we have a lot of questions and not a lot of answers. We don't even know which road was followed by the truck in Belgium."
"We don't know how much time it stayed in Belgian territory. We don't know if it stopped or not. We don't know if the people got into the container or not," he said.
Belgium's Federal Prosecutor's office said it had opened a case focusing on "the organisers of and all other parties involved in this transport".
"This investigation will be carried out in close co-operation with the British police and judicial authorities," it said.
British Home Secretary Priti Patel went to Essex on Thursday for a briefing with police and tweeted that she had gone to thank officers "for their response to the tragic incident in Grays and receive an update on the investigation".
"I stand behind them as they continue their work to establish how this horrific event came to happen," she said.
A truck driver told the Irish Mirror it was possible the driver had no idea what he was hauling.
"The paperwork the driver deals with doesn't have to say what is in the trailer," the trucker said.
"I don't go in the back of any of my trailers and if it's a sealed trailer I can't. It could be that the driver has gone to pick that up and not known.
"What is unusual is that he stopped so nearby. Normally drivers would go straight from here to a warehouse. You just wouldn't stop before your delivery and open your back doors."
Thermal imaging cameras used at ports are unable to detect people in refrigeration trailers.
'NO CONNECTION' WITH BULGARIA
Meanwhile Bulgaria confirmed that the truck had license plates issued by the country.
Prime Minister Boyko Borisov said it was registered there in 2017 by an Irish citizen, and had not entered Bulgarian territory since.
"There is no connection with us, just the licence plates," he told national television.
Dimitar Dimitrov, executive director of the Bulgarian Chamber of Road Hauliers, told AFP many foreign hauliers registered in Bulgaria for financial reasons, and doubted whether a Bulgarian firm would employ Irish drivers.
The truck container was moved to the nearby Tilbury Docks on Wednesday evening so the bodies could be removed with dignity, deputy chief constable Pippa Mills from Essex police said.
"We are yet to identify them and must manage this sensitively with their families," she said.
Britain's National Crime Agency (NCA) said the number of migrants being smuggled into the UK in containers and trucks had risen in the last year.
In May, it said there had been "increasing use of higher risk methods of clandestine entry" to Britain by organised immigration crime gangs.
It suspects the criminal networks are starting to target quieter ports on the east and south coasts of the UK, where security checks for people smuggling are believed to be less stringent, as well as the main Channel crossing between Calais and Dover.
- With wires