Trial told of confusion and panic as cocklers drowned

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The Independent Online

The jury heard how nine of the cocklers climbed aboard a red pick-truck up already weighed down with cockles as the bay's notorious tides swept towards them in the dark on 5 February last year. The truck became stuck, forcing the cocklers to shed their waterproofs, jump out and struggle to the shore.

One group went in one direction and made it back to safety. The other group went another way and drowned. "[It] is as stark an illustration as there could be of the difficulty of finding a way back to shore in the dark," said Tim Holroyde, for the prosecution, in the trial of the alleged gangmaster, Lin Liang Ren, 29, from Liverpool.

Video footage taken from a rescue helicopter showed one of the cocklers, Li Hua, frantically waving his arms to rescuers as the sand bank on which he stood becoming smaller and smaller as the "freezing cold'' sea closing in.

He had left the cockle beds before the tide crept in because he could not bear the cold and dark and was sitting down when a friend known to him as "Brother Wen" called him to say he was stuck.

Mr Li rushed out, swimming across one channel and attempting to cross a second to save his friend. But he was overcome by the water and had to make for the sandbank, from which he was rescued by a lifeboat. "Brother Wen" drowned.

Guo Jin Fu, who stayed on the shore, received a call from his friend Guo Bin Long, who was on the cockle beds, imploring him to ring police for help. But Guo Jin Fu had only just arrived in Britain, so had no idea how to muster aid.

He called his friend back, to find him crying for his parents. "Guo Jin Fu talked to him until Guo Bin Long could not speak any longer," Mr Holroyde said. "It must have been a very distressing conversation."

Another survivor, Weng Zhang Yu, like many of the illegal-immigrant cocklers, could not swim. He tried to climb through the side door of Mr Lin's minibus once he reached the shore.

"[Mr Lin] was angry and ordered him to get out," Mr Holroyde said. "That refusal of assistance to a man who had narrowly escaped drowning is ... another indication of his attitude towards his workers."

Lin Liang Ren denies the manslaughter by gross negligence of 21 workers. Tony and David Eden, who ran a Liverpool fishing company which bought the Chinese cockles, deny facilitating a breach of immigration laws, as do Mr Lin's girlfriend and interpreter, Zhao Xiao Qing, and his cousin Lin Mu Yong, 31. Lin Liang Ren and Ms Zhao also deny attempting to pervert the course of justice.

The trial, at Preston Crown Court, heard there was intense pressure to bring in a good harvest through the night of 5 February, despite the high tide and a dire weather forecast. Two expensive articulated lorries were booked, one of which was to be at the beach by 8am the following morning.

Seventy cocklers would have been exposed to the tides had not their minibus broken down, reducing the number to 35.

The British cocklers knew the forecast and were leaving the beach by 5pm, soon after the Chinese arrived. They tapped their watches as they passed the Chinese, to draw attention to the time, but some Chinese were still two miles out from the shore.

Some of the cocklers had not even seen the sea before they started work, but they were desperate. "They wanted to earn money to repay the debts they had incurred ... getting to this country and to send money back to their families," Mr Holroyde said. At local police stations, survivors were allegedly ordered not to mention Mr Lin was the boss. "They were to name one of those who drowned as being the boss. They understood there would be serious consequences if they did not do as they were told," Mr Holroyde said.

"Why ... did the Chinese get cut off by the tide, and why did so many of them drown? Because they were dependent on their superiors to tell them when to stop work," Mr Holroyde said.

"[They were] far from home and unable to speak sufficient English to summon help, in the cold and dark, with no obvious route back to the shore even if they could swim, and with the water rising swiftly."

The case continues today.