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The BBC's Duncan Kennedy
"An air vent was somehow closed before they left Zeebrugge"
 real 28k

Friday, 23 June, 2000, 15:52 GMT 16:52 UK
Dover victims fought for air
Dover docks
58 bodies were found when the lorry arrived in Dover
The 58 Chinese illegal immigrants who died in the back of a lorry bound for the UK desperately tried to raise the alarm as their oxygen supply ran out, an inquest has been told.

It heard how they had banged on the side of the container with their shoes after an air vent was closed.

They died from a lack of oxygen and a build up of carbon dioxide in the airtight container during a ferry crossing from Zeebrugge, in Belgium.

The people would have been gasping for breath and would go into respiratory arrest.

Graham Perrin
Coroner's officer
The inquest began after lorry driver Perry Wacker was formally charged with the manslaughter of the 58 dead. Four other men are being questioned in London and the Netherlands.

Coroner's officer Graham Perrin said the 54 men and four women would have died between an hour and a half and five hours after the vent was closed.

He said he was amazed that two men had survived the journey, a result of more air becoming available after the death of each of its occupants.

The immigrants were loaded onto the refrigerated lorry carrying a consignment of tomatoes in Holland on Sunday, the inquest heard.

The boxes of tomatoes were piled at the rear of the container to hide the human cargo.

A false wooden barrier was placed behind the boxes to further conceal the immigrants.

"A small air vent was located on the front near side of the trailer," Mr Perrin said.

"This allowed air to enter, but this vent could be shut off externally."

Mr Perrin said that for the majority of the journey the vent was left open. But shortly before the lorry arrived at Zeebrugge docks it was shut.

Forensic police remove evidence
Forensic police officers remove evidence from the container
He explained to the court what would have happened then.

"It would appear that at some 90 minutes into the journey and realising the situation they were in, attempts were made by the occupants of the trailer to raise the alarm."

He said the immigrants would have become slowly short of breath, hot and sweaty.

"They attempted to open the vent from within and moved the stack of tomatoes to one side to attempt to open the rear doors," Mr Perrin said.

'Respiratory arrest'

He said carbon dioxide would have quickly built up inside the airtight container.

"The people would have been gasping for breath and would go into respiratory arrest."

He said this would result in irreversible cerebral anoxia - an absence of oxygen.

"Death would have been fairly rapid once the CO2 build up got to critical levels," Mr Perrin said.

The lorry sailed from Belgium at 18.30pm BST and arrived at Dover four and a half hours later.

It was not searched until at least 30 minutes later by Customs officer at Dover's Eastern Docks, by which time 58 of the immigrants had died.

The two survivors were unconscious.

DNA testing

The inquest heard that the bodies had been fingerprinted and photographed, and samples taken from them for DNA testing in an attempt to find out who they were.

This had not been made easy as each of the immigrants was wearing up to five layers of clothing, which were found strewn around the inside of the vehicle.

Many had several pairs of underwear, socks, trousers and shirts on, and most carried small amounts of US dollars, Deutschmarks, and small pieces of paper with telephone numbers on.

The coroner said his officers would focus on identifying everyone of the 58 deceased.

He said by law he was obliged to adjourn the inquest while a criminal investigation took place.

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