Police launch a homicide investigation as a man dies after 35 suspected immigrants are found in a shipping container at the Port of Tilbury in Essex.
Superintendent Trevor Rowe said the stowaways, both adults and children, were found in a container that arrived on a P&O ferry from Zeebrugge in Belgium at about 6.30am.
One man died and the others were taken to three hospitals.
Mr Rowe said: “All we know at the moment is that we believe them to come from the Indian subcontinent, but it is still early days.”It is a homicide investigation from the police point of view at this time.”
The group was discovered after port staff heard “screaming and banging” coming from a container, he added.
He said there were about 50 containers on the ferry and searches were continuing to establish whether any others contained people.
He said: “This is a humanitarian issue and the welfare of these patients is a priority.”
Mr Rowe said a “major incident” was declared at the port at 6.37am this morning.
He said: “Staff here at the port became aware of screaming and banging coming from a container coming from that particular ferry. As a result of that noise, staff were alerted and immediately breached the container to find 35 persons within that unit.”
The group consisted of adults and children of both genders.
The Norstream was described as a “roll-on, roll-off” container ferry.
Mr Rowe said: “It is a regular route here twice a day from Zeebrugge.”
Mr Rowe added: “There are 50 containers on that ferry which we are continuing to obviously open and explore to make sure that there are no further incumbents within those containers, which is a concern.”
So far almost 30 of the 50 containers on the ferry have been searched.
“That is the priority issue here at the moment – to make sure that there are no other containers on that particular ship that may or may not contain any persons,” Mr Rowe said.
The unit in question was around the size routinely carried by a large heavy goods vehicle.
Mr Rowe said that once the door on the container was opened those inside were extracted “very quickly”.
Responding to a question about where the container came from and its movements prior to arrival at Tilbury, Mr Rowe said: “There are 50 containers, that particular container will be the subject of a criminal investigation so we wouldn’t disclose those details at this time.”
British authorities are understood to be liaising with their counterparts in Belgium as part of the investigation into the container’s origins.
Mr Rowe said: “It is a homicide investigation… we will be looking to see where the origin and the gangs or whoever may (be) involved in this conspiracy to bring these people in this way over to this country.
“Clearly we need to try and bring them to justice.”
Asked to clarify the nature of the homicide investigation, police said charges could include murder and manslaughter, although there was no suggestion anyone on the container was a suspect.
The superintendent added: “Nothing has been ruled out. We need to speak to the people in the container, where they have come from, what their motivation is and who’s involved.”
He said there was no indication of those on board suffering with a specific virus, but said tests were being carried out at hospital.Public Health England has said it was not involved in the response to, investigation of or anything to do with the incident.
A spokeswoman said: “If it was ebola, health care professionals are so alert at the moment to signs and symptoms that should there have been anyone who was showing symptoms we would have been notified immediately.
“I think we can be confident that we are not dealing with that.”
Officials are set to interview the stowaways at a reception centre after they are released from hospital.
Police said there are “language issues” and interpreters will be brought in.
Daniel Gore, from the East England ambulance service, said paramedics arrived on the scene within 11 minutes and immediately declared it a major incident.
He said: “In terms of the number of patients that we dealt with it is 35 patients in total. Unfortunately one of those patients was declared deceased at the scene, a male.”
No information has been released about the ages of any of the stowaways or the relationship between them.
Two patients were taken to Basildon Hospital in a serious but not life-threatening condition, Mr Gore added, along with 16 other patients suffering from dehydration and hypothermia.
Nine patients were taken to the Royal London Whitechapel hospital and a further seven to Southend Hospital, all with the same ailments.
All of those found in the container were conscious when it was opened apart from the man who subsequently died.Mr Gore said it was a “very difficult scene” for the first paramedics arriving at the incident.
He added: “In terms of our current and ongoing operation here we have got a number of resources still at the scene while the containers being removed from the vessel are being searched.
“We have set up an area adjacent to where that is taking place so any other further patients that are found will be immediately taken to that area, triaged accordingly and dealt with from there.
“British authorities are liaising with their counterparts in Belgium.
Police have set up a “casualty bureau” hotline for anyone concerned about relatives. The numbers are 0800 0560944 or 0207 1580010 if dialling from outside the UK.
P&O Ferries told the Press Association the commercial vessel arrived from Zeebrugge at around 6am.
Natalie Hardy, from the firm, said the ship was scheduled to leave Belgium last night at 10pm and arrive at Tilbury today at 6am, and was carrying 64 containers, 72 trailers and five lorries and drivers.
Ms Hardy said: “They (port authorities) found 35 clandestines on a container in the ferry. They had been in there overnight, because the ship was an overnight freight ferry.”
Ms Hardy said the container arrived on the quay at Zeebrugge yesterday at 6.56pm and was loaded on to the ferry at 8.07pm.
According to the website MarineTraffic.com, the 180m by 25.5m Norstream was built in 1999 and is registered in the Netherlands.
Yves Le Clef, harbour master at the Port of Zeebrugge, said he he had no information about the incident.
“This is the first I have heard,” he said.
The port’s website describes it as an “ideal location to serve the markets of continental Europe as well as the British Isles” and the “main gateway to Europe”.It says the port’s total cargo traffic has tripled from 14 million tonnes in 1985 to 43.5 million in 2012.