Theatre ceiling collapse: S'porean sisters thought it was part of the act

When she saw the ceiling buckle while watching a play in London's Apollo Theatre, she thought it was part of the performance.

Even when the actors on stage shouted "watch out!", Ms Sheryl Kang, a Singaporean whose sister was sitting some distance away, still assumed it was part of the show.

But to her horror, rubble then came crashing about four storeys down to those sitting in the stalls on the first level.

More than 80 people were injured, seven seriously, when the ceiling of the theatre collapsed on Dec 19.

The play The Curious Incident Of The Dog In The Night-Time, adapted from Mark Haddon's novel of the same name, was being performed at the time.

Though Ms Kang, a legal counsellor who turned 30 on Tuesday, was unhurt, the accident sparked a frantic search for her sister, Sheena, 22, in the ensuing chaos, as many of the 720 people rushed for the exits.

Recounting her experience to The New Paper on Monday, Ms Kang said she was visiting her sister, who is pursuing a master's degree at the School of Oriental and African Studies in the University of London.

They decided to catch the play at the Apollo on Dec 19.

LAST-MINUTE TICKETS

Ms Kang, who got married early last year, said: "We managed to get last-minute tickets costing about £15 (S$30) to the play after we both read and loved the novel when we were young.

"I was late meeting my sister due to a problem with my mobile phone. We managed to reach the theatre just before the play began," she said.

But they found their balcony seats on the third level of the theatre were already occupied.

"It was packed that night. We were lucky to find two empty seats on the balcony, even though they were far apart from each other."

'NOTHING SEEMED WRONG'

Ms Kang did not notice anything amiss with the 112-year-old theatre, adding: "We were in such a rush that I didn't have time to look closely at the theatre. It just looked old. Nothing seemed wrong."

But about 45 minutes into the play, she saw people in the first row of the balcony jumping out of their seats and scrambling towards the exit.

Instinctively, she looked up and was horrified to see the theatre's ceiling buckling and sagging in a V-shape.

Ms Kang said: "The ceiling bulged downwards and there were cracks appearing. For a while, I wondered if that was part of the play. I thought it was part of its special effects."

Astonishment turned to fear when she heard the ushers shouting, "Go! Go! Go!"

She sprang to her feet to head towards the exit while trying to spot her sister in the sea of fleeing people.

Ms Kang said she felt the urge to head back up the staircase to look for her sister, but thought better of it.

"I was in a dilemma. I didn't want to hold up the crowd or get trampled in a stampede. At the same time, I was worried that my sister would be trapped inside."

When Ms Kang got out of the theatre, she tried to contact her sister.

"My mobile phone was still having problems making calls, so I tried to send a text message to her. However, it came out as gibberish," she said.

SAFE AND SOUND

She heaved a sigh of relief when her sister messaged her to say she was safe and was around the corner in front of a Japanese restaurant.

"When we saw each other, we ran to each other, hugged and cried. I was just so glad that my sister was safe," she said.

The siblings, who were not hurt, then hung around outside the theatre for about 30 minutes to observe the aftermath.

Ms Kang said: "People were streaming out covered in grey plaster. Some of them were crying, others were bleeding."

The police and paramedics, who arrived within three minutes of Ms Kang leaving the building, were tending to the wounded.

"They even used double-decker buses to transport the injured to the hospitals. The rescuers were very nice and asked us repeatedly if we needed help," she said.

"I was also very impressed with the ushers, who stayed behind and ensured everyone got out." She later found out that part of the balcony had also collapsed.

"It was very scary. We could have been seriously injured or killed. We were very lucky to escape unharmed."

Ms Kang flew back to Singapore at the end of her nine-day stay in London on Dec 22.

But not before the sisters caught one more play to add to the two musicals they caught - Les Miserables and The Book of Mormon.

She said: "When we caught War Horse (the day after the collapse), we made sure we watched it in a newer theatre and we checked where the exits were."

About the ceiling collapse

Performances at the Apollo Theatre have been cancelled until Jan 11, after its ceiling collapsed last month.

In a statement on its website, Nimax Theatres, which owns the Apollo said it was "a shocking and upsetting incident".

About 720 people were in the 112-year-old theatre at about 8.15pm on Dec 19 when ornate masonry and a lighting rig fell about four storeys on some of those at the stall seats below.

More than 80 people were injured, seven seriously. No one was killed, reported BBC News. The theatre seats about 750 people.

Fifty-eight of the injured were taken to four hospitals.

British media reported that there had been a thunderstorm and a heavy rainburst in London that evening.

Reports suggested that water had dripped through the ceiling cracks before the collapse. Investigations are ongoing, reported the Guardian.

Nimax Theatres also owns a number of prestigious West End stages.


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