FORMER miners spoke of their outrage last night after workmen destroyed a tree erected to the memory of men who lost their lives in one of the region's worst pit disasters.

Families were appalled to discover one of the 83 trees planted in memory of the men and boys who lost their lives in the Easington Colliery disaster had been uprooted to make way for the first phase of a regeneration scheme.

A devastating explosion ripped through the five-quarter seam at Easington pit on May 29, 1951, killing 81 men and two rescuers.

Residents decided to flank the lane leading to the village's Welfare Park with 83 trees in memory of the victims.

The lane was named Memorial Avenue and has been a cherished walkway for generations of the dead men's descendants.

But returning from a recent holiday, former miner Jack Graham, 77, discovered that one of the trees had been dug out to allow for a re-alignment of the entrance to the lane.

The wall and ornamental gateway at the approach to Memorial Avenue have been dismantled and replaced with a gate and wall 15ft further back necessitating the removal of one of the trees.

The work marks the first phase of a £750,000 Easington Colliery Parish Council scheme to regenerate the welfare park, car park, and improve road safety in the area. Officials say the work is needed following the building of a nearby private housing estate.

But Mr Graham and his brother-in-law, John Garside, 66, who lost his 20-year-old brother, Tom, in the disaster, have been left extremely upset.

Mr Garside said: "I can remember as a schoolboy coming up here to help plant the 83 trees in memory of those we'd lost and to see one of them being deliberately uprooted is heartbreaking."

Mr Graham said: "Everyone I have spoken to is appalled by what has happened. At the very least, the council should have called a public meeting to assess local opinion.

"Councillors in this village must know how important and symbolic these trees are to us. I can't believe they have let this happen.''

Fiona Sloan, whose uncle Frederick Cairns died in the explosion, said: "We were brought up to treat that area as a very special place. Every one of those trees stands for a man who gave his life for the coal industry."

Former parish council chairman Richard Burnip said that members of the authority were very sensitive to the importance of the trees. He pledged it would be replaced.

Councillor Burnip, a former pitman, said the regeneration proposals had been published and added: "I myself attended a public meeting with residents from the Wembley Estate in the village and took the plans along but when I asked, no one wanted to see them."

He said over the years some of the original trees had become diseased and several have had to be replaced.

The memorial plaque in the old gate is to be put in the new gate.