Men found dead in mill fire ‘likely to have been victims of modern slavery’ as pictures emerge of devastating site

Four Vietnamese men whose remains were found inside a burnt out building in Oldham are likely to have been the victims of modern slavery, police have revealed.

Cuong Van Chu, Uoc Van Nguyen, Duong Van Nguyen and Nam Thanh Lee have all been identified as victims of the tragedy after a blaze at Bismark House in May this year.

It wasn’t until demolition work began on the site that workers uncovered human remains on July 23. Since then, a painstaking investigation has been conducted by GMP, which led to the recovery of the four men – who their families in Vietnam hadn’t heard from since the day of the fire.

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Five months on from the grim discovery, specialist teams are still at the site combing for evidence and to rule out the possibility of further victims – with work likely to continue until February.

Several lines of enquiry are being explored about how the men came to be in the former factory, with the possibility of them being the victims of human trafficking confirmed as one line of enquiry.

Clockwise from top left: Uoc Van Nguyen; Nam Thanh Le; Coung Van Chu; Duong Van Nguyen
(Image: MANCHESTER EVENING NEWS)

Detective Superintendent Lewis Hughes, Senior Identification Manager and Force Lead for Disaster Victim Identification on Operation Logan, told the M.E.N that the investigation team have not received any information that suggests the men had any life outside of the building.

“It’s safe to say that we believe they were likely to have been the victims of modern slavery,” he said. If we are looking at them being the victims of organised crime or exploitation there are people that will be spoken to and people on bail already.”

Two men who were arrested on suspicion of manslaughter and other offences in connection with the case were released on bail earlier this year. The force has since been granted a bail extension as they work to piece together the evidence.

“They are still on bail and there is ongoing work ongoing to better understand their involvement,” Supt Hughes said.

“There are other lines of enquiry at the factory and it’s safe to say we have recovered evidence that cannabis was being cultivated in part of the factory.

The investigation site at Bismark House
(Image: GMP)

“We are investigating modern slavery offences, organised crime offences and the potential that they were the victims of a homicide as well.”

Specialist teams are said to be meticulously searching through an estimated four and a half thousand tonnes of rubble on the site and have described the scene as ‘extremely complicated.’

Photographs from the scene released by Greater Manchester Police to the Manchester Evening News show the extent of the devastating site.

Officers are trekking through the rubble to ensure there are no further victims – as Supt Hughes said he couldn’t rule out that anyone else was present at the time of the fire until the search operation is complete.

“Given the nature of the demolition work we are still recovering human remains from our victims so we have not simply recovered four victims who have remained there intact,” he said.

Detective Superintendent Lewis Hughes
(Image: GMP)

“It’s extremely difficult. We are also still looking for any evidence about what may have caused the fire or who may be responsible. We estimate to finish before February.”

At an inquest opening at Rochdale Coroner’s Court earlier this month, police explained how detectives had been able to identify three of the men by travelling to Vietnam before matching DNA from the remains to their grieving relatives.

Cuong Van Chu was one of four Vietnamese men whose partial remains were recovered. Police were able to take DNA from fragments of the married 39-year-old’s right thigh, before matching it with his parents.

In a statement issued through Greater Manchester Police, they said: “Cuong’s family are devastated at his tragic death in the most terrible circumstances. We are grateful for the work by Greater Manchester Police in finding Cuong and we are now wanting to have Cuong returned home to our family in Vietnam to finally lay him to rest peacefully.”

Senior Coroner, Joanne Kearsley, then opened the inquests of Nam 21, and Duong, 29. Police discovered the remains of leg bones belonging to Nam, while officers found the skull and teeth of Duong. Officers were able to take the DNA and match it with their parents.

The investigation site at Bismark House in Oldham
(Image: GMP)

Nam, from the Yên Thành district, had no fixed address in the UK and his occupation was unknown. Duong, from the Nghe An region of Vietnam, was last known to be a rice farmer. Both men were single.

Uoc, from Nghe An, was the first man to be identified from the scene. An inquest into the death of the married 31-year-old, who was previously a farmer, was opened in August after specialist officers had matched his fingerprints with an immigration and asylum database.

Supt Hughes said that whilst little information is known about the four men, ‘it’s safe to say’ they came to the UK for a better life, and to make money for their families back in Vietnam.

“The families are desperate for the return of their loved ones so they can lay them to rest,” he said. “We are working towards that for around March time.”

An IOPC investigation, which was launched after it emerged the force had had prior contact with the victim’s families before the remains of the men were found, is still ongoing.

Police at the scene of the demolished site earlier this year
(Image: Manchester Evening News)

Supt Hughes said GMP don’t have a ‘clear position’ from Greater Manchester Fire Service (GMFRS) about why they didn’t go in to the factory at the time of the fire.

Greater Manchester Fire and Rescue Service spent four days extinguishing the flames – working under the knowledge the building was empty. Bosses have defended their decision not to search the premises at the time of the blaze on May 7, but have since confirmed that an independent review of their response to the fire will be carried out.

“At the time of the fire itself there was no information that anyone was in there,” Supt Hughes said. “It was an industrial premises and the middle of the night. We received loads of calls but nothing to say anyone was believed to be in there or trapped.”

As the search enters its sixth month, Supt Hughes renewed calls for anyone with information about what the factory was being used for, or any information about the four victims, to come forward and report it.

Greater Manchester Fire Service (GMFRS) have been approached by the M.E.N for an update on their investigation.

Anyone with information should contact Greater Manchester Police via 101. In an emergency, always dial 999. International callers can contact GMP via +441618725050. Information can also be submitted in English or Vietnamese via the Major Incident Public Portal: Public Portal (mipp.police.uk)

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Manchester Evening News – Oldham