Migrants are found 'dying' in tanker

The first sign that something was wrong inside the large tanker parked under a flyover came at 8.15am yesterday when Pete Hobbs and his colleagues heard a faint banging. Then as they approached the lorry, the plaintive cries from inside became audible. They said: "Help us. We're dying."

Within minutes the full paraphernalia of a major emergency had descended on the underpass in a scruffy corner of south-east London where early yesterday Mr Hobbs and his workmates fitting a new water main unwittingly stumbled upon a new example of the desperate and dangerous lengths that illegal immigrants are prepared to go to in order to reach Britain.

Covered from head to foot in the black charcoal dust that they had hidden in for at least 12 hours, eight migrants – including a 12-year-old boy – emerged from the sealed hatches of the German-registered lorry, gasping for air.

The men, confirmed last night as two Eritreans, three Iraqi Kurds and three Iranians, collapsed on to the pavement on the edge of a housing estate in Abbey Wood, near Woolwich, in front of astonished emergency workers and locals.

Mr Hobbs, 19, from Chatham, Kent, a contract worker, said: "We'd just started working and we noticed this big lorry parked up under a flyover. At first all we could hear was this frantic banging from inside the tanker. We rushed over and we could hear men's voices shouting 'help us' and 'we're dying'. We banged on the cab door and got the driver out. He was wearing ear plugs so he couldn't hear anything. He said to call the police and soon afterwards these guys started climbing out. They were totally black from whatever was inside. It was a weird sight. They were coughing and wheezing and the ambulancemen laid some of them out on the ground to help them. They were wrapped in blankets and looked in a bad way."

An air ambulance, a chemical response team and about a dozen police, fire service and ambulance vehicles were called to the scene amid concern that the tanker was carrying a hazardous substance.

In reality, it was carrying about 15 tonnes of charcoal powder for use in the Crossness sewage treatment works, less than a mile from the underpass.

It is understood the migrants were lying on top of the cargo but had sunk into powder and run short of oxygen after breathing all the air in the sealed tank.

While many thousands have risked their lives – and unknown numbers been killed – by clinging on to lorry axles or huddling under the wind deflectors above drivers' cabs, anti-trafficking campaigners said it was the first time that illegal immigrants have been found inside a fully loaded chemical tanker. The 55-year-old driver of the lorry, owned by a German freight company called H Freund, was last night being held at a police station in south London on suspicion of people trafficking.

Scotland Yard said the lorry had begun its journey at the company's headquarters in Cologne, but it was not known where or how the migrants had got inside. H Freund declined to comment on the incident and said it was co-operating with the authorities.

It is understood the vehicle made its journey via Calais, where hundreds of asylum-seekers attempt to board lorries every night.

Lorraine Johnson, 57, who lives opposite the flyover, said: "The ambulancemen and police were pulling these people out. I thought they were all dead, they were just limp. It took four of the emergency guys to pull one up out of the hatch."

The men were taken to hospital and treated for breathing problems before being discharged into the custody of the Border and Immigration Agency (BIA).

Migrants pay between £2,000 and £20,000 to trafficking gangs who smuggle them across Europe into the UK. The BIA said last month that about 18,000 potential illegal immigrants had been stopped trying to enter Britain last year, of whom 13,000 had been found hidden on vehicles travelling through ports.

Nick Kinsella, head of the UK Human Trafficking Centre, which highlights the plight of such people, said: "This is about criminals selling people in the same way that they sell any other commodity and there is good money to be made."

A perilous journey

* The worst human trafficking tragedy in Britain was in June 2000 when 58 Chinese illegal immigrants were found suffocated in a lorry at Dover docks.

Perry Wacker, 41, a haulier from Rotterdam, closed the only air vent on the container of his lorry to prevent customs officials from discovering his illicit cargo, each of whom had paid thousands of pounds to a criminal gang to be brought to Europe. Officials found the bodies of 54 men and four women hidden behind a consignment of tomatoes. Wacker was jailed for 14 years.

* In December 2001, eight bodies were found in a sea container in Waterford in the Irish Republic. The victims, thought to be from Turkey, Romania and Albania, had suffocated inside a consignment of office furniture from Italy. It is thought they had spent four days at sea on the journey from the Belgian port of Zeebrugge and died after the voyage was delayed for 48 hours by bad weather. A lorry driver taking the container to nearby Wexford was alerted by the banging of five survivors on the sides.

* A tragedy was narrowly averted in October 2003 when 26 Sri Lankan refugees were found suffering the effects of breathing in engine fumes in a van travelling through Dover. Officials said they would have lapsed into unconsciousness after another hour in the vehicle.

News
people
Sport
FootballGerman sparks three goals in four minutes at favourite No 10 role
News
Rumer was diagnosed with bipolarity, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder: 'I was convinced it was a misdiagnosis'
peopleHer debut album caused her post-traumatic stress - how will she cope as she releases her third record?
Sport
A long jumper competes in the 80-to-84-year-old age division at the 2007 World Masters Championships
athletics
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Sport
Radamel Falcao was forced to withdraw from the World Cup after undergoing surgery
premier leagueExclusive: Reds have agreement with Monaco
Arts and Entertainment
'New Tricks' star Dennis Waterman is departing from the show after he completes filming on two more episodes
tvHe is only remaining member of original cast
Life and Style
Walking tall: unlike some, Donatella Versace showed a strong and vibrant collection
fashionAlexander Fury on the staid Italian clothing industry
Arts and Entertainment
Gregory Porter learnt about his father’s voice at his funeral
music
Arts and Entertainment
tvHighs and lows of the cast's careers since 2004
Life and Style
Children at the Leytonstone branch of the Homeless Children's Aid and Adoption Society tuck into their harvest festival gifts, in October 1936
food + drinkThe harvest festival is back, but forget cans of tuna and packets of instant mash
Sport
Lewis Hamilton will start the Singapore Grand Prix from pole, with Nico Rosberg second and Daniel Ricciardo third
F1... for floodlit Singapore Grand Prix
New Articles
i100
Life and Style
Couples have been having sex less in 2014, according to a new survey
life
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Volunteer Trustee opportunities now available at The Society for Experimental Biology

Unpaid Voluntary Position : Reach Volunteering: Volunteer your expertise as Tr...

Early Years Educator

£68 - £73 per day + Competitive rates of pay based on experience: Randstad Edu...

Nursery Nurse

£69 - £73 per day + Competitive London rates of pay: Randstad Education Group:...

Primary KS1 NQTs required in Lambeth

£117 - £157 per day + Competitive London rates: Randstad Education Group: * Pr...

Day In a Page

Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

Scrambled eggs and LSD

Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

New leading ladies of dance fight back

How female vocalists are now writing their own hits
Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
How to make a Lego masterpiece

How to make a Lego masterpiece

Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam