By Belinda Goldsmith
LONDON (Reuters) - Emergency services said nearly 90 people were injured on Thursday when part of the ceiling collapsed during a performance at a packed London theatre, bringing the city's West End entertainment district to a standstill.
The audience was showered with masonry and debris following the incident at the Apollo Theatre, where about 720 people including many families were watching the hugely popular play "The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time".
Emergency services said 88 people were injured. They described 81 as "walking wounded", many with head injuries, while seven others were taken to hospital with more serious injuries.
Nick Harding from London Fire Brigade said a section of ornate plaster ceiling, measuring about 10 meters (33 feet) by 10 meters, had fallen onto the audience watching the evening show.
"The ceiling took parts of the balconies down with it," he said. "Everyone is out of the building and everyone is safe," he added, confirming there had been no fatalities.
He said it was too early to speculate about the cause but police said there was no suggestion that it was the result of any deliberate act or attack.
There was no indication either that heavy storms earlier in the evening were to blame and investigations would continue through the night, Harding said.
Witnesses said they saw the ceiling in the four-storey auditorium suddenly collapse during the performance, creating panic when those inside realized it was not part of the play.
"We saw the ceiling give way and it just dropped down onto the stalls. There was dust everywhere and people were screaming," Steve George, 29, who was sitting in seats at the top of the theatre, told Reuters.
"I have no idea how many people would have been injured," added George, a cinema manager who had taken his wife Hannah to the show for a birthday treat.
"It became like a black mist with people walking over me," added Michelle Chew, another member of the audience.
Emergency vehicles blocked off Shaftesbury Avenue in the heart of London's theatreland, packed with revelers on one of the busiest nights of the year in the week before Christmas.
"People were running in here with dust all over themselves," said Thomas Asihen, manager of the McDonald's restaurant located on the same block.
He said people were being brought out by paramedics shrouded in plastic blankets, with some carried out on stretchers.
Those injured inside the Apollo, which first opened its doors in February 1901, were taken to the nearby Gielgud Theatre while a bus was being used to transport those needing hospital treatment.
"In my time as a fire officer I've never seen an incident like this. I imagine lots of people were out enjoying the show in the run-up to Christmas," Harding said.
(Additional reporting by William Schomberg; Writing by Michael Holden; Editing by Kevin Liffey and Eric Walsh)