"There was fear, both primal and rational": an eyewitness describes the collapse

Independent features writer Simon Usborne was bought tickets to the show as an early Christmas present from his girlfriend. He described the moment the ceiling of the theatre fell in today's paper.

"Moments later, a series of cracks and bangs sounded out from above. We thought for a split second they were part of the show, but then the cast stopped and looked upwards in horror.

Another split second and the stage, as well as the entire theatre beyond the shelter of the dress circle above me, disappeared behind a plummeting curtain of dark-grey dust and debris. The thunderous cracks and bangs continued as it fell. They were not sound effects. I’m writing this at midnight and can picture it exactly; the ceiling rained down in violent plumes. It was like watching the back of a waterfall - or an avalanche - from inside a cave in a cliff.

Another split second, and instinct took over. There was no need for an alarm or a call to evacuate. There was fear, both primal and rational – what if the collapse continued. Without taking the time to look at each other, Jess and I, along with everybody who could, shot up and ran for the exits as bangs gave way to screams. Few people grabbed their belongings.

Two more seconds and I reached the pavement on Shaftesbury Avenue, bounding up steps and bursting through a fire exit. We were among the first out, thankfully free of the panicked scrum still trying to leave inside. We ran across the road and only then looked at each other, breathing deeply, hearts racing, swearing.

We were safe but didn’t know then what kind of debris that dust contained, or whether people were dead inside. There was genuine fear on that pavement that drama had turned into tragedy."