Man arrested after 39 found dead in truck trailer in southeast England

Police found the bodies of 39 people inside a Bulgarian-registered truck trailer at an industrial park east of London Wednesday.

Truck believed to have started in Bulgaria, travelling via Belgium to U.K.

Police forensic officers discovered a truck containing a large number of bodies in the east of London early Wednesday. (Stephanie Jenzer/CBC)

Police found the bodies of 39 people inside a Bulgarian-registered truck trailer at an industrial park east of London Wednesday.

The 25-year-old driver, from Northern Ireland, has been arrested on suspicion of murder, police said.

"This is a tragic incident, where a large number of people have lost their lives. We are in the process of identifying the victims. However, I anticipate that this could be a lengthy process," said Chief Supt. Andrew Mariner of Essex Police.

"We have arrested the lorry driver in connection with the incident who remains in police custody as our inquiries continue."

Police made the grim discovery early Wednesday at the Waterglade Industrial Park in Grays, about 32 kilometres from central London. The victims, 38 adults and one teenager, were pronounced dead at the scene.

Authorities said they believed the truck had started its journey in Bulgaria, then travelled from Zeebrugge, Belgium, into the English port of Purfleet, about 30 kilometres east of London.

It then docked in the Thurrock area at around 12:30 a.m. local time for around 35 minutes before departing, police said in a statement.

Police had originally reported that the truck had travelled via the Welsh port Holyhead.

The Bulgarian embassy in London said it will work with British authorities on the case.

The country's foreign ministry confirmed the vehicle was registered in Bulgaria.

It also said there is no information yet on the nationalities of the victims in the truck and that "British police have warned that the identification of the bodies will take a long time."

Police said 39 people were found dead Wednesday inside a truck trailer believed to have come from Bulgaria. (UK Pool via AP)

'Utterly tragic incident'

U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson said he was "appalled by this tragic incident in Essex.

"I am receiving regular updates from the Home Office and will work closely with Essex Police as we establish exactly what has happened," he said.

"My thoughts are with all those who lost their lives and their loved ones."

U.K. Home Secretary Priti Patel went to Twitter to express sadness over "this utterly tragic incident."

In Britain's biggest illegal immigrant tragedy in 2000, customs officials found the bodies of 58 Chinese people crammed into a tomato truck at the southern port of Dover.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel expressed her condolences Wednesday over the deaths. Germany lies on transit routes between the U.K. and Bulgaria, where the truck at the centre of the tragedy is registered.

Her spokesperson Steffen Seibert told reporters in Berlin that Merkel was "deeply shaken by [the] fate of 39 people who were crammed together inside a truck and died an agonizing death."

Seibert said while the circumstances of the deaths are still being investigated, "our resolve must be directed against those who organize and carry out such transports."

A spokesman for the Germany's interior ministry, Steve Alter, said it would provide all necessary support it can to British investigators.