LONDON -- A murder investigation has been launched after 39 dead bodies were discovered in a tractor-trailer about 20 miles east of London, police said Wednesday.
Emergency services were called to an industrial park in the town of Grays in Essex, southeast England, at around 1:40 a.m. local time when the vehicle was discovered to have people inside. Thirty-nine people, one of whom was a teenager, were pronounced dead at the scene.
A 25-year-old man from Northern Ireland has been arrested on suspicion of murder in connection with the deaths, according to Essex police.
A cordon has been placed around the industrial park and an investigation has begun to identify the victims and determine the exact circumstances behind the deaths. The U.K. Home Office, the government department responsible for domestic security and immigration, will be working with Essex police and the National Crime Agency on the investigation.
"This is a tragic incident where a large number of people have lost their lives," Essex Police Chief Superintendent Andrew Mariner said in a statement. "Our inquiries are ongoing to establish what has happened. We are in the process of identifying the victims, however, I anticipate that this could be a lengthy process."
"We have arrested the lorry driver in connection with the incident who remains in police custody as our inquiries continue," he added.
The trailer entered the U.K. from the Belgian coastal town of Zeebrugge into the town of Purfleet, arriving at around 12:30 a.m. Wednesday, police said. The tractor unit is believed to have traveled from Northern Ireland to Purfleet. The tractor and trailer unit then arrived at the industrial park in Grays, where it was discovered by emergency services shortly after.
The Bulgarian Ministry of Foreign Affairs issued a statement saying the Scania brand truck was registered in Bulgaria on behalf of a company owned by an Irish citizen.
At a press conference Wednesday morning, Deputy Chief Constable Pippa Mills of the Essex police force said the “identification of the victims remains our number one priority” and called for anyone with information about the vehicle to come forward.
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson described the news as "tragic" and said he was receiving regular updates from the authorities as they piece together what happened.
"I’m appalled by this tragic incident in Essex," he wrote on Twitter. "I am receiving regular updates and the Home Office will work closely with Essex Police as we establish exactly what has happened. My thoughts are with all those who lost their lives & their loved ones."
Jackie Doyle-Price, a local member of Parliament, described the incident as "sickening" and called for the perpetrators to be brought to justice.
"Sickening news of 39 people found dead in a container in Grays," she tweeted. "People trafficking is a vile and dangerous business. This is a big investigation for @EssexPoliceUK. Lets hope they bring these murderers to justice."