ONE hundred years to the minute after the Newport Docks disaster of 1909 a wreath was dropped into the water at the place where 39 men lost their lives.

Only moments before the siren signalling the end of the working day on July 2, 1909 the walls of the new lock connecting the dock to open water collapsed, trapping or crushing scores of men.

Some of the men near the top of the workings were able to scramble to safety and others were later rescued but for men near the bottom escape was impossible as hundreds of thousands of tons of earth engulfed them.

As he let go the wreath on the stroke of five yesterday Tom Lewis, grandson of Tom 'Toya' Lewis known as the boy hero of the docks disaster recalled his grandfather and the searing images which were to haunt him the rest of his life.

"My grandfather who was 17 at the time and a slip of a lad went down into the collapsed workings to help a man called Bardill whose arm was trapped by a 12-inch beam.

"He had been cutting a tunnel round the arm and had almost finished when he was called up to the surface because they thought the rest was going to cave in.

"Faced with leaving the man he was trying to save he began to cry tears of frustration and ever afterwards, if anyone mentioned the docks disaster, he would fill up."

Mr Lewis, 71, of Williams Close, Pill recalled his grandfather who died in the late 1960s as "Something of a rogue but very friendly.

"His wife my grandmother would have to turn him upside down to get the money out of his pockets but when he worked at the market in Newport he used to get bits of bacon and vegetables and cook up a stew for dishing out to the tramps and alcoholics."

It is thought that saturation from the bed of the nearby Ebbw River combined with extraordinarily high summer rainfall contributed towards the worst peacetime disaster ever to occur in Newport.

Tom 'Toya' Lewis, an Argus paper seller, was presented to King Edward VII and given the Albert Medal after volunteering to be lowered into the collapsed trench.

Thanks largely to the boy hero's work Bardill was rescued without serious injury.

Monty Lewis, who with her husband, Tom, have been compiling a record of the tragedy said "It was extremely moving to be there today.

"Eerily, the dock looks today very much as it did when completed.

"Associated British Ports have been very good to us and have been able to dig up some photographs which have barely seen the light of day in a century."

Matthew Kennerley, the port's director said "It is very touching to be here 100 years virtually to the second after these man gave their lives.

"Their deaths were not in vain.

"What they build they built to last.

"These men literally helped lay the foundations of Newport's success story and that of a busy docks which is still a big contributor to the local economy to this very day."

Hardly any attempt was made at the time to account for the whereabouts of casual labour and it is not known exactly how many bodies were unrecovered.

Those accounted for were put in a mass grave at St Woolos cemetery but up to 16 men lie forever entombed by the Usk's mud and gravel.