HUNDREDS of people gathered yesterday to mark the centenary of one of the region’s deadliest pit disasters.

Chill winds blew across the former pit head in Stanley, County Durham, where a marquee had been put up over the memorial colliery wheel.

At 3.45pm, the time the explosion tore through West Stanley Colliery on February 16, 1909, the bell at St Andrew’s Church tolled 168 times – once for each of the men and boys who died.

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During the service, which was organised by Derwentside District Council, bugles from the South Shields branch of the Durham Light Infantry Association played the Last Post.

Council leader Councillor Alex Watson said: “The people of Stanley do not want to forget their past. They want to remember it.

“Stanley owes its very existence to the mining industry, but in 1909 health and safety was not a high priority.”

Prayers for the victims were offered by clergymen from across Stanley, and folk singer Mike Weston performed a song about the tragedy, called The Burn Pit Explosion.

At the time, the scale of the tragedy attracted the interest of national newspapers.

In the days after as the death toll rose, The Times reported: “Men, women, and children wander aimlessly about the roadway, with no thoughts of work, or stand idle at their doors for a time gazing into space, but almost invariably in the end they drift towards the grimy pit yard, where the mud is ankledeep and the coal dust lies a heavy pall over all.

“There they stand in their thousands, waiting and watching, quite orderly and almost motionless, with dry eyes but with drawn faces, in an anxiety that is not far removed from despair.”

The paper also carried reports from men who had survived the explosion and, made it from the pit alive.

Henry Davison, who was one of the 26 men rescued from the Tillie seam, said: “The shock of the explosion was very great, it quite deafened me.

“I could not get away for a long time because of the gas.

With a number of others I felt my way gradually towards the shaft. Once we had to stop for six or seven hours. We came across a young boy who was breathing heavily and seemed to be dying. We carried him for a short time. Then he died and we left him behind. I saw 17 dead and 15 of them were boys.”

Cornelius McAloon, the grandfather of Catherine Ward, 65, who lives in Chesterle- Street, was killed in the disaster.

She was at yesterday’s service and said: “It is wonderful that after all this time the township can come together to remember the past.

“We cannot imagine how this disaster affected people, but families will not forget and this will be passed down for generations.

“It is still very moving and there are still tears to be shed.”