London - Checks were carried out on all London's historic theatres on Friday after the ceiling collapsed onto the audience at a packed show, injuring 76 people including several children.
A sell-out crowd of 720 people was in the Apollo Theatre on Thursday night when 10 square metres of ornate plaster and masonry fell from the ceiling, taking a section of the balcony with it and striking audience members in the stalls below.
An investigation is now under way, with one line of inquiry likely to focus on a thunderstorm and heavy rain shortly before the incident.
Witnesses said they heard creaking noises in the 112-year-old theatre in Soho but thought it was part of the performance of “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time”.
Then debris and dust filled the air, sending coughing, terrified theatregoers Ä many of them families enjoying a pre-Christmas treat Äfleeing for the exits.
Rescuers commandeered three red London double-decker buses to transport the wounded, many of them with head injuries.
Ambulance staff said they treated 76 patients, taking 58 to hospital, including a number of children. Seven people had serious but not life-threatening injuries.
A surveyor examined the theatre overnight and said the roof was secure but the local authority is still investigating what happened. Police have ruled out any criminality.
“Each historic theatre is unique and we have no reason to believe this is other than an isolated incident,” said Councillor Nickie Aiken of Westminster City Council.
“We have confirmed today with the Society of London Theatre that all theatres' safety checks are up to date.
“However as a precaution, all historic theatres are carrying out further safety checks.”
All historic theatres are required to have their roofs checked every three years, and industry figures stressed that visitors need not be concerned.
Nimax Theatres, which owns the Apollo, described the ceiling collapse as a “shocking and upsetting incident” and cancelled all performances until January 4.
But other shows across the capital will continue as normal.
“Whilst this was a serious incident, London's world renowned theatre land is open for business,” said London Mayor Boris Johnson.
Plays and musicals are big business in London, enjoyed by an estimated 32,000 people every night and attracting two million international visitors each year.
Christmas is a particularly busy time, and the producers will anxiously be watching for any sign that the Apollo incident might scare off visitors.
Witnesses recounted the terror when the ceiling fell from the Edwardian-era theatre, which has three tiers of balconies, the uppermost of which is said to be the steepest in London.
Desmond Thomas, 18, part of a school party watching the show, said they heard noises before the accident.
“Maybe 10 minutes into the performance we heard a tap-tap noise, we thought it was rain,” he told AFP.
“There was a crack and then it suddenly seemed to get bigger and suddenly it collapsed. The next thing we knew the whole theatre filled with dust and smoke.”
Audience member James Kearney, who was given a ticket to the show as a present, recounted seeing “people with blood on their heads” behind him.
His companion Dee Stephenson said there was so much dust afterwards they had to feel their way out.
“Everybody was in a trance-like state. A lot of people were in absolute shock. We were extremely fortunate,” she said.
Pictures from inside the theatre showed wooden beams and masonry piled on top of rows of dust-covered red seats.
Prime Minister David Cameron said he was “grateful for the fast work of the emergency services in helping the injured”.
Some of those hurt were treated in triage centres set up in the lobbies of the nearby Gielgud and Queen's theatres.
“In the finest traditions of Theatreland, they very quickly rallied around,” said fire brigade spokesman Graham Ellis.