“YOU are to be congratulated for your miraculous escape,” the coroner told Ruby Kendal, aged 24. “You were in the middle of it.”

At about 3.10am on May 2, 1945, the worst explosion in the four-year history of Royal Ordnance Factory 59 at Aycliffe killed eight people and injured 22, as our VE Day supplement told. It could be heard more than three miles away and it rocked the bedroom of Ruby’s parents at her home in Heighington Street, Aycliffe.

“The accident was perhaps the more unfortunate because it had happened at the end of the war in Europe,” said the coroner, Mr JE Brown-Humes, as he conducted an inquest into the deaths which occurred just six days before the official end of the conflict with Germany.

Ruby had worked at the munitions factory for four years, and had been a quality control operative for two, carrying 16 shells packed with TNT every shift for analysis.

On the night in question, she had been chatting to Eddie Smith in the filling shop when someone shouted to him: “A belt has come off the machine”. Eddie went to investigate.

“A few seconds after, the lights went out and everything went black,” Ruby told a reporter. “All I can recall is a terrific flash and a terrific noise. I felt something dropping and a blow on the head and my shoulders.

“I made a dash for the side door. There was debris everywhere, and the place was clouded with smoke.

“When I got out, all I remember is a crowd of people outside. I was taken to the nurses, trembling, and I was stone deaf and could hear nothing for three hours.”

The Northern Echo:

Her heavy tweed coat had been hanging in the workshop and was torn to shreds. Ruby herself had ten burns on her shoulders, but she had been saved by a blast wall, and the coroner praised her calm bravery.

She was just one of two survivors – those who died had been in the heart of the workshop. Five of the dead were male, and a couple of them were into their fifties, showing that the disaster had occurred in one of the most senior parts of the factory. They had travelled from widely across the region to be at work that fateful morning. Those killed were:

Isabella Bailey, 44, of Gilesgate; Elsie Barrett, a widow aged 27 of Bildershaw, West Auckland; James Bunton, 58, of Rainton Gate; William Clark Hobson, 51, of Grainger Terrace, Leamside; William Mitchell, 31, of Percy Street, Hetton-le-Hole, who died shortly after admission to hospital; Christopher Seagrave, 39, of Park Terrace, Witton Park; Edmund Smith, 29, of Market Place, Pickering; and Alice Wilson, 26, of Town Wall, Hartlepool.

It must have been an enormous explosion.

The Northern Echo:

Ian Diggins, Ruby’s son, has her newspaper cuttings from the days after. In a report of the inquest, an assistant forewoman, Margaret Carter from Neville’s Cross, “said she had made a roll call after the explosion and was satisfied that Bunton, Hobson, Bailey and Wilson were killed in the explosion. No trace could be found of any of them.”