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Exclusive: Father of Vietnamese woman believed dead in Essex truck — Smugglers said this was a ‘safe route’

CNN Exclusive

Nguyen Thi Phong and Pham Van Thin live in a small house in Nghen, a town in Vietnam’s Ha Tinh province. It has a corrugated metal roof, propped up on loose bricks, and a Vietnamese flag flies outside.

The family doesn’t have much — they make about $400 a month between them — but they say they managed to scrape together the money to pay for their daughter, Pham Thi Tra My, to travel to the UK, where they hoped she would have a chance at a better life.

That journey ended in tragedy. Pham Thi Tra My is believed to be among the 39 people found dead in a refrigerated lorry trailer at an industrial park in Grays, Essex, on Wednesday.

She texted her parents late on Tuesday night, UK time, when the trailer was in transit to the English port of Purfleet, according to Maritime tables seen by CNN.

“I’m sorry Dad and Mom. The way I went overseas was not successful,” the 26-year-old wrote. “Mom, I love Dad and you so much. I’m dying because I can’t breathe. Nghen, Can Loc, Ha Tinh, Vietnam. Mom, I am so sorry, Mom.”

It has not yet been confirmed that Pham Thi Tra My was one of the victims on the truck, but her family said they fear the worst. UK authorities are working with their Vietnamese counterparts to identify the victims, but have not yet officially named any of them or confirmed their nationalities.

Speaking to CNN in the family’s home in Vietnam, Pham Van Thin was still overcome with grief, saying it was “very painful” to receive the text. He said his daughter must have known she was going to die when she sent it.

“I’ve lost both my loved one and my money,” Pham said, adding that the smugglers they paid did not tell the family how they would transport Tra My to the UK. She traveled to the country via China and France, but eventually fell out of contact with her family, after which Pham reported her missing.

By then it was too late, Pham Thi Tra My and the other 38 people on board the truck were trapped and running out of oxygen.

“The smugglers said that this was a … safe route, that people would go by airplane, car … if I had known she would go by this route, I would not have let her go,” Pham said.

Nguyen Thi Phong said she is now dependent on the British and Vietnamese authorities to bring home their daughter. Neither she or her husband know whether they will ever get any of the money back they spent funding their daughter’s doomed journey.

A second family in Vietnam’s Ha Tinh province, who also fear their son may have died in the Essex truck tragedy, said they received a phone call from a contact that their son died in an accident.

Nguyen Dinh Gia told CNN in an exclusive interview that he received a call from France on Thursday night with the news. The caller told him his son, Nguyen Dinh Luong, “arrived in England in a car with a group and there was an accident.”

“The whole group had died,” he was told.

The Nguyens would not disclose who called them to tell them the news, but are adamant they believe their son is dead because “the person was filled with remorse.”

Their son had traveled to Russia in 2017, living in Ukraine and Germany before working in France for nearly a year.

Man charged

A man has been charged by police investigating the deaths. Maurice Robinson, 25, from Craigavon, Northern Ireland was arrested shortly after the bodies were found in an industrial park in Grays, Essex, on Wednesday.

Robinson is due to appear at Chelmsford Magistrates’ Court on Monday charged with 39 counts of manslaughter, conspiracy to traffic people, conspiracy to assist unlawful immigration and money laundering.

Three other people have been arrested in connection with this investigation: a 48-year-old man from Northern Ireland, and a man and a woman, both 38. They were arrested on suspicion of manslaughter and trafficking-related offenses.

Earlier Saturday, police said they would not speculate on the nationalities of those who died in the truck, but are aware of reports of missing individuals in the Vietnamese community.

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