As the 100th anniversary of a pit disaster approaches, the family of one of the victims explains how they think he died. Gavin Havery reports.

THE family of a father-of-two believe he died in the West Stanley Pit Disaster of 1909 by trying save his brother- in-law.

Thomas Killingback, 26, survived the fatal blast that killed 168 men and boys because he was safe in a clean pocket of air.

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Relatives were told he then went back to search for his brother-in-law – but both men perished in the pit.

Mr Killingback was a shifter, or labourer, and lived with his wife, Honor, and his daughters, five-yearold Catherine Alice and baby Violet Emily.

Mr Killingback’s great niece, Joan Brack, lives in Fairfield, Stockton, and has been researching her family history.

She said: “He had taken his wife’s younger brother down the pit and the family story is that he survived the accident and was in an area with clean air.

“When he went to look for his brother-in-law he was overcome with gas and died from carbon monoxide poisoning.”

The tragedy, which devastated the mining community of Stanley, happened at 3.45pm on February 16, 1909.

Mrs Brack said: “These men were very brave and had a hard life “This must have been devastating for families to lose their husbands fathers and sons. “The women would have been left without a breadwinner and a lot of the men in the town were just gone.

“It must have been dreadful for those who survived having to go down the mine again afterwards. I don’t know how they did it.”

Mr Killingback was buried in east Gateshead where his parents lived and two years after the tragedy Honor married a man named Patrick Croney.

Mrs Brack and her cousin Joan Anderson, from Leicestershire, will visit the Centenary Memorial Service at St Andrew’s Parish Church at noon on Saturday to honour the dead.

The ceremony has been organised by amateur historians Bob Drake and Jack Hair to remember the men and boys who lost their life that fateful day.

Mrs Brack added: “It is important to remember the family that I didn’t meet, but had an impact on our lives.

“I want to appreciate what people went through so they are not forgotten.”

■ A four-page supplement on the centenary services and the full story of the town’s tragedy will be published in The Northern Echo next Monday.

To coincide with the 100th anniversary we are also launching new pages on our website dedicated to the West Stanley Pit Disaster, with video footage, audio clip, news stories and an online photo gallery.