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Investigators probe collapse of London theater ceiling

LONDON -- London theaters sought Friday to reassure visitors about the safety of their buildings after the ceiling collapsed onto the audience at a packed show, injuring 76 people.

A sell-out crowd of 720 people was in the Apollo Theatre on Thursday night when 10 square meters of ornate plaster and masonry fell from the ceiling, taking a section of the balcony with it and striking audience members below.

An investigation is now under way, with one line of inquiry likely to focus on a thunderstorm and heavy rain that fell shortly before the ceiling fell in a little after 8:00 p.m.

Witnesses said they heard creaking noises in the 112-year-old theater 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 theatergoers — many of them families enjoying a pre-Christmas treat — fleeing 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 theater overnight and said the roof was secure, but the local authority is still investigating what happened.

“We will not know the cause of the incident until all investigations have been completed but checks are ongoing,” said Councilor Nickie Aiken of Westminster Council.

“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.”

All historic theaters are required to have their roofs checked every three years, and industry figures stressed that visitors to other theaters need not be concerned.

The Apollo cancelled all performances until Jan. 4 but other shows across the capital will continue as normal, the Society of London Theatres said.

Plays and musicals are big business in London, enjoyed by estimated two million foreign visitors last year, according to the Visit Britain tourism agency.

Christmas is a particularly busy time, and the producers will anxiously be watching for any sign that the Apollo incident might scare off visitors.

A Society spokesman said all the major theater owners held an emergency meeting on Friday morning where they confirmed their safety certificates were all up to date.

They said they would “cooperate fully with the authorities to reassure the public that their theaters are safe,” he said.

Nimax Theaters, which owns the Apollo, said the ceiling collapse was a “shocking and upsetting incident.”

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An injured man is treated inside an ambulance following a ceiling collapse at the Apollo Theatre in central London on Thursday, Dec. 19. (AFP)

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