Wembley roof collapse forces evacuation of 3,000 workers

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The troubled Wembley Stadium project was dealt a further blow when an 80-ton steel rafter in the roof slipped, forcing the evacuation of more than 3,000 construction workers.

At 8.30am yesterday the rafter on the north side of the stadium broke free of its temporary steel connections and fell 18 inches.

Witnesses described a loud bang and one said that a team of three steel fitters who were working on the rafter at the time were very lucky to escape uninjured. The site was deserted for 10 hours until the night shift began at 7pm after engineers had scaled the roof and declared the site safe. An engineer said: "I heard a really loud bang and looked round and saw the lads running away. There were about three people really close to it, they were beside it working on it at the time and had a very lucky escape."

The Australian construction company Multiplex ordered an immediate investigation but said it expected business as usual within 24 hours. The incident has cast a shadow over today's VIP tour of the stadium, featuring former players from Germany and England who appeared in the 1966 World Cup final.

The Multiplex managing director, Martin Kidd, described the incident as "minor" and said the roof structure had not been affected and preliminary findings suggested there was no fault with the roof design. He denied that safety was being sacrificed to complete the project, which is months behind schedule and has led to estimated losses of £150m for Multiplex.

Last month the Football Association and Multiplex brought to an end months of speculation when they confirmed that Wembley would not be ready in time to stage the FA Cup final on 13 May. England's pre-World Cup friendlies against Hungary on 30 May and Jamaica on 3 June will be played at Old Trafford in Manchester, while the three Football League play-off finals in late May will be moved to Cardiff. The FA looks increasingly unlikely to commit to the date of an inaugural match for the new national stadium.

Although the FA is protected against the cost of construction delays, it stands to lose an estimated £1m from each international game not played at Wembley. Multiplex's losses may rise still further, with the £757m cost of the project now thought likely to nudge £1bn, taking into account the rising price of steel.

Stadium's troubled birth

* Dec 1996: Wembley chosen as preferred site. Lord Foster's £475m, 90,000-seat design is unveiled in July 1999 and Australian firm Multiplex appointed as builder in September 2000.

* May 2002: Financing secured via German bank WestLB. Work begins on site in Sept.

* July 2004: Multiplex sacks steel contractor Cleveland Bridge. Legal action ensues.

* Jan 2006: Multiplex says wrong concrete used. Delays.

* Feb 2006: FA announces venue will not be ready for FA Cup final in May.

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