Investigators were seeking yesterday to establish why the ceiling of a packed London theater collapsed, injuring 76 people and coating terrified audience members with rubble.
A sell-out crowd of about 720 people was in the Apollo Theatre in Soho on Thursday night when ornate masonry and rigging fell about five stories onto their heads.
Witnesses said they heard creaking noises in the 112-year-old theater, but thought it was part of the show they were watching, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time.
Then debris and dust filled the air, sending coughing, terrified theatergoers — many of them families enjoying a pre-Christmas treat — fleeing for the exits.
Rescuers commandeered three iconic red London double-decker buses to transport the wounded, while the city’s normally tourist-thronged “Theatreland” was brought to a stunned halt.
Ambulance staff treated 76 patients, taking 58 to hospital, where seven were described as having serious, but not life-threatening injuries.
A surveyor examined the theater overnight and said the roof was secure, but investigations are now being carried out by the local authority to establish what happened.
The abnormally heavy rain that fell in the hour before the ceiling collapsed shortly after 8pm is likely to be one line of inquiry.
“We will not know the cause of the incident until all investigations have been completed, but checks are ongoing,” Councilor Nickie Aiken of Westminster Council said.
“This appears to be an isolated incident, but we will continue to work with theaters throughout the day to ensure that all safety precautions are in place,” she said.
All historic theaters are required to undergo rigorous safety checks on their roofs every three years, she added.
Witnesses told of terror inside the Edwardian-era theater, which has three tiers of balconies, the uppermost of which is said to be the steepest in London.
“A section of the theater’s ceiling collapsed onto the audience who were watching the show. The ceiling took parts of the balconies down with it,” senior firefighter Nick Harding told reporters. “In my time as a fire officer I’ve never seen an incident like this.”
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 said.
“There was a crack and then it suddenly seemed to get bigger and suddenly it collapsed. The next thing we knew the whole theater filled with dust and smoke,” Thomas added.
British Prime Minister David Cameron said he was being kept updated on the incident and was “grateful for the fast work of the emergency services in helping the injured.”
Some of the injured were treated in triage centers set up in the lobbies of the nearby Gielgud and Queen’s theaters.