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Safety reassurance after London theater collapse

LONDON — An industry group sought to reassure theatergoers 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 76 people.

The Society of London Theatre said all theaters 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 hunks 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 seven of the injuries were serious, though none was considered life-threatening. Most of the casualties were "walking wounded" treated for cuts and grazes, breathing problems and head injuries. Several dozen injured people were taken to hospitals in ambulances and commandeered double-decker buses.

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

Like many of London's West End theaters, the Apollo, built in 1901, is more than 100 years old.

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

Westminster Council, the local authority, said an investigation was under way and an initial structural assessment had found the building is secure.

The building remained cordoned off to the public Friday. The Society of London theater said performances of "Curious Incident" on Friday and Saturday had been canceled.

Marc Sinden, director of the documentary series "Great West End Theatres," said that despite the accident, London's theaters were extremely safe.

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

"Of course theaters are safe. I just think it's a PR disaster and something has got to be done to show that the theatres are safe."