Dec 20 2013
Surveyors have said the ceiling of the Apollo Theatre is "sound" after 80 people were injured, seven of them seriously, when sections of it collapsed on the audience during a packed show.
Eyewitnesses described "chaos and panic" as parts of the theatre "began to crumble down" around them just after 8pm last night.
Around 10 square metres of plaster from the Grade II-listed West End theatre plummeted on to the stalls below, dragging a section of the balcony with it, striking members of the audience and filling the theatre with clouds of thick dust.
More than 700 people were inside the Apollo - which was 45 minutes into the National Theatre's performance of The Curious Incident Of The Dog In The Night-time - when members of the audience started screaming as it appeared parts of the ceiling caved in.
Audience members spoke of hearing a loud "creaking" which some initially thought was part of the show.
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".
Mr Anjarwalla, 29, from Kenya, said: "I was in the upper circle with my family when, about 45 minutes in, people started shouting and screaming.
"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."
Mr Anjarwalla, 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.
"We initially thought it was part of the show. Thankfully we are all OK. My wife is seven months pregnant but she is OK. We feel very blessed."
Sean Walsh, who was visiting the show with his girlfriend, said they were sitting in the balcony when they first spotted a group of people below them shouting to leave the theatre immediately.
Mr Walsh, 41, from north London, said: "We were right up in the gods and a couple in the group below just said 'Go!'
"We thought they were just leaving because maybe they were bored, and my girlfriend thought maybe they had seen a mouse.
"But then the whole of the ceiling just came down."
Photographs from inside the theatre showed heavy beams and wood strewn across seats, which were coated in debris and dust.
A London Fire Brigade spokesman said: "There were 720 people in the audience when the ceiling did come down.
"Ten square metres of the main plaster ceiling fell, landing on the balconies and some on the main stalls.
"The emergency services were there very quickly. We had 50 firefighters on the scene and eight fire engines."
A spokeswoman for St Thomas' Hospital said 34 adults and five children were treated after the incident.
Two of the adults were kept in overnight with the rest discharged.
She said: "The majority of patients had cuts and bruises, and a small number had fractures."
The cause of the accident is being investigated and Westminster City Council is expected to report on a structural assessment of the Shaftesbury Avenue venue this afternoon.
Westminster Council's cabinet member for community protection, Nicola Aiken, told the BBC Radio 4 Today programme: "District surveyors have attended and declared that the ceiling structure is sound and only plaster fell.
"Today we are waiting for the police to hand over the theatre to us as we are the health and safety authority for historic theatres in Westminster and we will be doing checks of all historic theatres' consents and licensing today in liaison with the Society of London Theatres because we want to reassure theatre-goers that theatres are safe to attend.
"We will be carrying out the investigation as to why the accident happened in the first place, but that will take some time."
O ne line of inquiry will be the effect of adverse weather on the 100-year-old building.
Forecasters confirmed there was an abnormally high concentration of rain, hail and lightning strikes in London between 7pm and 9pm last night, with nearly 15% (14.5%) of the average monthly rainfall for one area in December falling in one hour.
A MeteoGroup forecaster said: "In terms of that particularly heavy rain that we had overnight, the heaviest rain was between 7pm and 8pm. There was 8mm (0.3in) in an hour in south London, and we had reports that some of that fell as hail.
"For 8mm to fall in an hour is quite a lot. The average December monthly rainfall for Heathrow, for example, is 55mm (2.2in). When you put it in that sort of perspective, it was a lot.
"We also had 15 lightning strikes that occurred during the evening yesterday. They are fairly scattered around London, but I can confirm there was one in central London.
"That is a lot of lightning, especially for quite a concentrated area. When you look at the rest of the UK there is not very much, and it's quite unusual for them all to cluster in one location."
Marc Sinden, the director of documentary series Great West End Theatres, said the incident should not worry theatre-goers.
"I heard someone say that theatres are potentially dangerous, which is absolute rubbish," he said.
"If they were, they wouldn't be allowed to be open. They have annual checks by the county council and the fire brigade.
"And I'm wanting to reassure the audiences that they are perfectly safe. I think the person saying they weren't may have been mischievous.
"These theatres have been around for a very long time, but they are looked after and regularly maintained. They are looked after daily."
A spokeswoman for Nimax Theatres, which owns the Apollo, said performances had been cancelled until Saturday January 4.
London Mayor Boris Johnson said the response of the emergency services had been "exemplary" and that the West End remained "open for business".
He said: " This morning I spoke with senior figures from the emergency services and key agencies to assess the situation and to thank them.
"I would stress that, although it is too early to say what caused this collapse, and whilst this was a serious incident, London's world-renowned Theatreland is open for business and thousands of theatre-goers will rightly be out and about tonight and over the weekend.
"Westminster City Council and the Society of London Theatre have assured me that all safety checks for the West End's historic theatres are up to date but, as a precaution, further checks have already started and will continue throughout the day."
Westminster Council's cabinet member for community protection, Nicola Aiken, said: " Our teams have been on site at the Apollo Theatre last night and again this morning and will remain on site until all checks are complete. As the investigation is ongoing, we are unable to comment further on specifics.
"However, we can say that the Apollo's health and safety checks are up to date.
"Each historic theatre is unique and we have no reason to believe this is other than an isolated incident.
"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 today."
The councillor added: "Our officers were on site last night and they are again there today. They are working with the police and once the police are satisfied there is no criminal investigation, they will then officially hand over to us as the Health and Safety Authority.
"I can't speculate on how long it is going to take, it will take as long as it takes. It seems to be a very one-off incident but we have to get to the bottom of it and we will do."
Ms Aiken refused to comment on suggestions that extreme weather may have caused the ceiling collapse, adding that officers would leave "no stone unturned" in investigating the cause.
She added that the council may review its policy of surveying old buildings' roofs every three years following last night's incident.
"I'm not going to speak specifically to this theatre, as the investigative authority we can't.
"But I can say that all historic theatres have to have regular health and safety checks, and comply with certain health and safety checks for their licence.
"All historic theatres' ceilings are checked every three years. We don't know what the problem is and until we do we can't put a plan into action.
"But we will be working with theatre owners, working with all the other health and safety agencies to make sure, wherever possible, that this doesn't happen again.
"I know that the Society of London Theatres are carrying out emergency checks today to give as much assurance to theatre-goers as possible.
On the three-year check policy, she said: "After this investigation we may come up with recommendations, but I'm not going to speculate any further than that."
A spokeswoman for St Mary's Hospital in west London said it had treated 11 people, with one of them still in the hospital receiving further treatment.