LONDON - Part of the ornate plaster ceiling of a West End theater collapsed during a packed performance Thursday night, injuring 76 people, authorities said.
The collapse occurred at the Apollo Theatre about 8:10 p.m. local time (3:10 p.m. ET), 40 minutes into a nearly sold-out performance of The Curious Incident Of The Dog In The Night-Time. No cast members were hurt.
The London Ambulance Services said 58 people were taken to four hospitals, many in city buses. Seven patrons suffered serious injuries but none were thought to be life-threatening. The others were described as "walking wounded," with broken bones, cuts or contusions.
Firefighters evacuated several injured audience members after about 100 square feet of the ceiling came crashing down, fire officials said. They were hit by plasterwork, wooden beams, a lighting rig and other debris. More than 700 people were inside at the time.
"In my time as a fire officer, I've never seen an incident like this," said Fire Brigade Officer Nick Harding, who manages the nearby Kingsland Station.
He said the plaster first hit the balcony, then tumbled onto the ground-floor stalls. Authorities examined the roof in their investigation of what caused the collapse.
About an hour before, a thunderstorm drenched London, but it was not yet known whether rain or a possible lightning strike could have caused or contributed to the accident.
An Asian restaurant next door is shrouded in scaffolding, but deputy assistant fire commissioner Graham Ellis told reporters he did not believe the building work was a contributing factor, The Telegraph reported.
The Apollo, on Shaftesbury Avenue in SoHo, the heart of the theater district, was built in 1901. It has 775 seats on four levels. The balcony of the third tier is considered the steepest in London, the Guardian notes.
Hannah George, 29, an art teacher from East London, was in the fifth row of the balcony with her husband, when she heard a slowly escalating creaking sound. She said a few people in the front row began getting up, and she initially thought they were heading to the bar. But she quickly realized something was wrong and fled.
"The ceiling just crashed down," she said. "If we had been there another five minutes I don't know what would have happened to us."
"It was supposed to be my birthday treat," George added.
Martin Bostock was in the audience with his family, and said "complete chaos" erupted.
"At first we thought it was part of the show," he told Sky News. "Then I got hit on the head."
The cast interrupted the show during a seaside scene to point at the creaking ceiling. That led another theater-goer to believe it was part of the performance. "But then there was a lot of crashing noise and part of the roof caved in," he told the BBC.
A Kenyan businessman who survived the September terrorist attack on a Nairobi mall was in the upper circle with his pregnant wife and her parents, The Telegraph reported.
"I was very close to the Westgate Mall, which was the scene of the recent terror attack, so my first thought was instantly to check whether we should be ducking for safety," Khalil Anjarwalla told the newspaper.
The Curious Incident Of The Dog In The Night-Time, staged by the National Theatre, is adapted from Mark Haddon's award-winning mystery novel about a 15-year-old "outsider" who calls himself "a mathematician with some behavioral difficulties." The London Times hailed the stage production as a "phenomenal combination of storytelling and spectacle."
The New York Times said the 2½-hour play "may be the most entertaining family drama since the stage version of 'War Horse'," and Thursday night's holiday house included many families.
The Apollo, the first in London built in the Edwardian period, is owned by Nica Burns of Nimax Theatres. Burns is one of Britain's leading play producers. Burns owns the Apollo with her business partner Max Weitzenhoffer along with five London playhouses: Palace, Lyric, Garrick, Duchess and Vaudeville.
Shaftesbury Avenue sits in the heart of London's playhouse district, and the Apollo is situated equidistant from the Leicester Square and Piccadilly Circus underground stations.
Contributing: William M. Welch