Panicked theatre-goers fled as a ceiling collapsed tonight at one of the West End’s leading theatres trapping some of the audience beneath the debris and injuring more than 80 people.
A rescue operation was launched at the Apollo Theatre in Shaftesbury Avenue, London, where the collapse occurred during a sell-out performance of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time.
Audience members assumed a creaking noise heard halfway through the first half of the performance was part of the show before the ceiling began moving and then a section of it caved in, filling the auditorium in a cloud of dust and masonry.
Some of those in the theatre have reported a section of balcony was also brought down.
Within minutes Rupert Street and Shaftesbury Avenue were filled with dust-covered theatre-goers led out by staff, many of whom were bleeding and dazed.
People left the building crying, coughing and helping each other away.
All of those trapped have now been freed and officials have said there were 81 casualties who were walking wounded and seven others seriously injured.
Local businesses thre open their doors to assist those who were injured, while neighbouring theatres turned their foyers into treatment centres and a London bus ferried some of those injured to hospital.
Twenty-five ambulance crews are at the scene and the University College Hospital has launched its major emergency response programme, but there is no detail as yet on the nature of the more serious injuries suffered by people who are believed to have been seated in the stalls beneath the ceiling when it fell.
One 29-year-old, who would only give his name as Ben, said: “It was about halfway through the first half of the show and there was a lot of creaking.
“We thought it was part of the scene, it was a seaside scene, but then there was a lot of crashing noise and part of the roof caved in. There was dust everywhere, everybody’s covered in dust.
“We got out fairly quickly, I think everyone was quite panicked.”
A 38-year-old said: “We were in the stalls. It’s a balcony that’s come off. Some of the structure’s come down.”
Police were on the scene within minutes and began cordoning off the theatre, which is a Grade-II listed building dating back to 1901.
Theatre-goer Khalil Anjarwalla said he, his heavily pregnant wife and her parents managed to escape from the theatre safely after “kilos of concrete plummeted from the ceiling”.
Business owner Mr Anjarwalla said: “I was in the upper circle with my family when, about 45 minutes in, people started shouting and screaming.
“We thought it was part of the play. But the ceiling was crumbling.
“Within an instant the whole roof seemed to come down.
“We saw a lot of people completely covered in dust - I could hardly breathe.
“We had to get out, calmly. I remember thinking the cloud, the dust - it reminded me of those scenes from 9/11 in the aftermath of the building collapsing.”
Mr Anjarwalla, a businessman from Kenya who was visiting his in-laws with his English wife, Aliya, said: “The actors just seemed to run from the stage. They had obviously seen what had happened.
“Thankfully we are all OK. My wife is seven months pregnant but she is OK.
“We feel very blessed.”
He said some people seemed to be “cut quite badly”.
The London Fire Brigade said the theatre was almost full, with “around 700 people” watching the performance.
Libby Grundy, 65, said: “There was a bang, and then a huge cloud of dust. At first I thought it was a special effect.
“I heard somebody on the stage say ‘Oh bloody hell’, because they must have seen it.
“And then people realised it must be some sort of emergency and people started getting up. People didn’t panic. People were quite shaky when they got out.
“There wasn’t any screaming. People were scared, but they weren’t screaming.
“I feel quite shaky now.”
Martin Bostock, who was in the audience with his family, told reporters he suffered a head injury after he was hit by falling debris.
He told Sky News: “I was in the lower stalls with my family in the early stages of the show.
“It was just terrifying and awful.
“I think the front part of the balcony fell down.
“At first we thought it was part of the show.
“Then I got hit on the head.”
Mr Bostock confirmed he was bleeding and needed medical treatment.
He went on: “It was complete chaos in the theatre. Absolutely terrifying and awful.
“We got out with cuts and bruises. I think most people did.”
The Apollo Theatre, which was the first London theatre built in the Edwardian period, seats 755, and the balcony on the third tier is considered the steepest in London. It is not known whether it was this one which collapsed.
The Stoll Moss Group bought it in 1975 and sold it to Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Really Useful Group and Bridgepoint Capital in 2000.
Nica Burns and Max Weitzenhoffer then bought it with several others in 2005, creating Nimax Theatres, which still owns the Apollo.
It has played host to a number of performances and a range of world-famous acting talent has appeared throughout its history. It opened with a selection of Edwardian musical comedies and light operas.
From the 1970s to the 1990s, the theatre staged performances featuring actors including John Mills, Vanessa Redgrave, Zoe Wanamaker, Peter O’Toole and Penelope Keith.
More recent productions have included roles by Rosamund Pike in Summer And Smoke (2006), Jessica Lange in The Glass Menagerie (2007), Josh Hartnett in Rain Man (2008) and James McAvoy in Rain (2009).
More recently, it hosted David Suchet in Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night and productions of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night and Richard III starring Mark Rylance.
The accident happened during a performance of The Curious Incident Of The Dog In The Night-Time, which has been running in London since August 2012.
Winner of a record-breaking seven Olivier Awards - including Best Play - the show started at The National Theatre, before transferring to the Apollo in March.
The production is based on Mark Haddon’s award-winning novel, adapted by Simon Stephens and directed by Marianne Elliott.