London (CNN) -- A rescue operation was under way Thursday after part of the ceiling in the Apollo Theatre in central London collapsed during a performance, injuring more than 40 people, five of them seriously, officials said.
“It was like slow motion,” said one girl, who initially thought the sound of the falling ceiling was sound effects, but soon learned otherwise. “It just kinda came down.”
“You initially thought it was part of the play and then you could feel things on you,” said an older woman. “The dust that came down—you couldn’t see in front of you.”
Metropolitan Police said in a tweet that those who were seriously hurt had been taken to hospitals in central London, and that there was no immediate indication of fatalities.
Authorities responded to the report at about 8:15 p.m., police said in a tweet.
Within an hour, a spokesman for the fire department said everyone including those who had been hurt had been freed from the building, which was at or near its 775-seat capacity, as is customary during the Christmas season.
Martin Bostock, who was with his wife and two children, said he thought the cave-in was part of the show until something very hard hit him on the head and chaos and panic erupted.
“You couldn’t see across the room because of the dust, which we were all breathing in,” he told CNN. “It was absolutely horrific and very terrifying. I was with my wife and two kids. Thank God, we got out.”
The Apollo is located next to Piccadilly Circus in the Soho district, which is usually packed with tourists, shoppers and diners at theater time.
Paramedics arrived carrying stretchers as police cordoned off the area.
A few minutes later, some of the paramedics emerged from the theater, their stretcher full; others helped someone limp out of the building.
A 29-year-old theatergoer named Hannah told CNN that she witnessed the event, which occurred about 40 minutes into the show, from Row E, near the front.
She said it started slowly, then accelerated as it dropped plaster and wood on the crowd. She said she heard someone say that a woman had broken her leg and she saw people with cuts and scrapes. But, she added, people made their way out of the building in an orderly manner.
Many were taken initially to the Lyric Theatre, located next door.
As she spoke, dozens and dozens of police, fire and ambulance vehicles filled the street in front of the theater.
The theater’s website said “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time” had been playing,” which it described as “a thrilling new stage play from the National Theatre.”
Ticket prices at the theater, which opened its doors in 1901 and whose 775 seats are arrayed on four levels, included a 1 pound (about $1.64) “theatre restoration levy,” the website said.
It is owned and operated by Nimax Theatres.
CNN’s Nic Robertson in London reported the story, Tom Watkins in Atlanta reported and wrote, Erin McLaughlin in London and Dana Ford in Atlanta contributed