LONDON - The ceiling of a packed London theatre collapsed on the audience during a hit show on Thursday, wounding 76 people including children and leaving terrified theatregoers covered in blood and rubble.
A sell-out crowd of around 720 people was in the Apollo Theatre watching "The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time" when ornate masonry and rigging fell some five storeys onto their heads.
Witnesses said they heard creaking noises in the 112-year-old theatre before the collapse but thought it was part of the show, which is one of London's most popular and was packed with families the week before Christmas.
Rescuers commandeered three iconic red London double-decker buses to transport the wounded, while London's normally tourist-thronged "Theatreland" was brought to a stunned halt.
Paramedics initially said 88 people were wounded but later revised the number downwards to 76. Seven were seriously injured, another 51 "walking wounded" were taken to hospital with minor injuries and the rest were treated at the scene.
"A section of the theatre's ceiling collapsed onto the audience who were watching the show. The ceiling took parts of the balconies down with it," senior firefighter Nick Harding told reporters.
"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."
Witnesses told of terror inside the Edwardian-era theatre, which has three tiers of balconies, the uppermost of which is said to be the steepest in London.
People were crying in shock and coughing because of the dust as they fled to safety.
Desmond Thomas, 18, part of a school party watching the show, said they heard noises before the accident.
"Maybe 10 minutes into the performance we heard a tap-tap noise, we thought it was rain," he told AFP.