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Authorities seek to reassure theatregoers after London theatre collapse injures 79

Emergency service vehicles gathered among London buses following an incident during a performance at the Apollo Theatre, far right, in London's Shaftesbury Avenue, Thursday evening, Dec. 19, 2013. It wasn't immediately clear if the roof, ceiling or balcony had collapsed. The London Fire Brigade said the theatre was almost full, with around 700 people watching the show. A spokesman said it was thought between 20 and 40 people were injured. (AP Photo by Joel Ryan, Invision)

Emergency service vehicles gathered among London buses following an incident during a performance at the Apollo Theatre, far right, in London’s Shaftesbury Avenue, Thursday evening, Dec. 19, 2013. It wasn’t immediately clear if the roof, ceiling or balcony had collapsed. The London Fire Brigade said the theatre was almost full, with around 700 people watching the show. A spokesman said it was thought between 20 and 40 people were injured. (AP Photo by Joel Ryan, Invision)

Jill Lawless, The Associated Press

LONDON - Authorities sought to reassure theatregoers Friday that London’s elegant but aging venues are safe after chunks of ornamental plaster fell from a ceiling of the Apollo Theatre, showering patrons with dust and debris and injuring 79 people.

One line of inquiry for investigators is whether a brief but intense rainstorm was a factor in Thursday’s accident at the century-old building.

The Society of London Theatre said all theatres undergo “rigorous safety checks and inspections by independent experts, and incidents like last night are extremely rare.”

“Our theatres entertain over 32,000 people in central London every night and all theatres take the safety of their audience, performers and staff very seriously,” it said.

Witnesses have described chaos and panic as large chunks of plaster, wooden beams and dust rained down on the audience 45 minutes into a performance of “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time.”

“I thought, maybe this is part of the play,” said Scott Daniels, an American tourist from the Dallas area. “All of a sudden, plaster starts raining down, huge hunks of plaster … The lights went out and everything filled with dust — everybody was coughing and choking.”

London Ambulance Service said Friday that it had treated 79 people, 56 of whom were taken to local hospitals in ambulances and two commandeered London buses. Of these, 47 were “walking wounded” with minor injuries, while nine “had suffered more serious injuries including head and back injuries.”

Nimax Theatres, which owns the Apollo, described the incident as “shocking and upsetting.”

Like many of London’s West End theatres, the Apollo is more than a century old, built in 1901.

The Theatres Trust, which helps preserve Britain’s historic playhouses, said theatre plasterwork was inspected regularly and certified by independent experts.

Westminster Council, the local authority, said an investigation was underway and an initial assessment by surveyors had found that the ceiling structure remained sound.”

The council said the Apollo’s health and safety checks were up to date.

“Each historic theatre is unique and we have no reason to believe this is other than an isolated incident,” said Councillor Nickie Aiken.

The building remained cordoned off to the public Friday. The National Theatre, producers of “Curious Incident,” said performances had been cancelled through Jan. 4.

Marc Sinden, director of the documentary series “Great West End Theatres,” said that despite the accident, London’s theatres are extremely safe.

“These theatres have been around for a very long time, but they are looked after and regularly maintained. They are looked after daily,” he said.

© The Canadian Press, 2013

The Canadian Press