At about 9:30pm on February 5th a call was made to the emergency services, the panicked voice on the line, who did not understand much English, managed to get just a couple of words out before the line went dead “sinking water, sinking water”.
The Morecambe bay cockling disaster claimed 21 lives, Chinese illegal immigrant workers controlled by evil gang masters known as ‘snakeheads’. Two bodies have yet to be discovered, one skull washed up on the beach more than six years later. Most of those who died were young people smuggled into Liverpool in containers and kept in slavery by the evil gang leaders, they were made to sleep on the floor and paid no more than £10 a day.
The local lifeboat crew worked for 22 hours to recover the bodies, 15 people survived, one survivor Li Hua recalls that fateful night
“The water was flooding so quickly some were dragged right away under the water."
Mr Li said: "It was pitch black and I was desperate. I thought I might just as well wait to die.”"I was just numb…..then, I don't know how, a wave maybe turned me round.I was on my own... And then a helicopter came.”He said he "kept waving" at the helicopter.Mr Li said: "I could not believe I was being rescued and I was alive again."
Mr Lli still suffers from panic attacks to this day “We all came for the same reason. We left our families to make a better life. And they were gone just like that. I was just lucky."
Mr Li’s evidence helped convict the snakeheads, however it came at a price as his identity had to be changed as part of the government protection program, such are the threats of the criminal gangland. In a way it’s no surprise, the illegal gang master operation was estimated to make approximately £1 million pounds per day for the criminal overlords.
Mr Li has made the trip to London in hope of a better life, his parents paid the gang lords £14,000 to smuggle Li into the UK . He says: “I paid a lot of money as I was told I could get a better job. I was promised a comfortable place to live.”
The truth was he worked 7 days a week cockling in the treacherous Morecambe bay waters. It was dark, freezing, You had one tool to dig and hand pick cockles to fill the bag. One person was able to pick two to three bags a day. While Mr Li and his group were put to work on the beaches the gang master spent his time in the nearby casinos.
The mistake on that night was to get the tide timings wrong, local cockle pickers had tried to warn them but a mixture of fear and the language barrier caused the group to ignore the warnings. Today in the peninsula just outside Morecambe is a reminder of that grim evening, the praying shell by the artist Anthony Padgett overlooks the bay in which the tragedy occurred, a work of art to provide reflection.
Mick Gradwell, the now retired police detective who Investigated the crimes for Lancashire Police, said: "You're thrown into investigating international organised crime gangs, snakeheads, triads, international human trafficking. We dealt with the people who were responsible for the deaths on the night but we did not make any dent into these wider criminal gangs who traffic people around the world," he said.
That honest assessment is the saddest thing from the tragedy. We are living in a time where the crimes of slave traders in history are being scrutinised more keenly than ever but ongoing slavery crimes are still happening under our noses, the guy at the car wash, the girl at the nail bar, a slave trade being lived out in plain sight.
It is currently estimated that you could nearly fill Wembley stadium twice with the number of victims of human trafficking. It’s still happening and the risk of another Morecambe bay cockling disaster is as real and present danger.
Lord McCall has brought a bill which is undergoing a second reading, one of the key elements is to allow victims of modern slavery at least a year’s support and leave to stay in this country, at present they have to be deported within 45 days, many ending up being re trafficked.
James Mildred of the Christian charity CARE states “It was a Conservative Government that pioneered the Modern Slavery Act which covers England and Wales and it would be fitting if it was the new Conservative Government that now improved on that landmark piece of legislation.One area of the Act that desperately needs improving is the support currently on offer to victims.Lord McColl’s new Bill is about putting victims first, which is the most effective way of giving them the best chance of rebuilding their lives.”
Modern slavery is a tragic reality in communities across England and Wales and if we fail to give victims robust support, they are at risk of destitution, homelessness or re-trafficking.What Lord McColl’s Bill does is send a really clear message to victims that they will be protected and not abandoned.
Mildred adds “Modern slavery is a dehumanising trade that causes utter devastation and today we are calling on the Government to play its part in eradicating this vile trade by backing Lord McColl’s Bill.”
In the months following the disaster, Li struggled to make sense of the atrocious events. After being intimidated by his gangmasters, Li told police he'd been on a picnic - not working - when disaster struck.
However, police soon realised that Mr Li was being terrorised and placed him in a witness protection program. His evidence led to the conviction of leader Lin Liang Ren on 21 counts of manslaughter, facilitating illegal immigration and perverting the course of justice. He was jailed for 14 years - just four months for each workers' life.
Mr Li said: “I wanted to get justice for those who died. All we wanted was to earn enough to survive, and to be treated fairly, and yet all he cared about was money.”
He added solemnly : “23 lives were lost - no one can bring them back. I was lucky to survive, but those families who lost their loved ones still feel anger towards those responsible. It’s totally unforgivable and unforgettable.
As I looked out on Morecambe bay even on the grimiest of British summer days it is hard to imagine the horrors of that night, Mr Li has no such troubles “The awful memories will stay with me for the rest of my life.”