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Panic is deadly at illicit club

Charges could come today after a stampede from a nightclub under orders not to open kills 21 and hurts 57.

©Associated Press
February 18, 2003
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CHICAGO -- Hundreds of screaming people stumbled down the darkened stairs of an illegally operated nightclub, gasping for air and stepping on bodies, only to find themselves trapped at the bottom trying to escape through a single exit.

At least 21 people were killed and 57 injured in the stampede early Monday at the crowded E2 nightclub, authorities said. There were reports that as many as 500 people were crammed into the second-floor club when someone sprayed Mace or pepper spray to quell a fistfight between two women about 2 a.m.

Authorities said they would seek criminal contempt charges as early as today against the owners of the South Side establishment for allowing people into the nightclub above the upscale steak and seafood restaurant Epitome.

The club, known for raucous dance parties, had been ordered shut in July because of 11 fire and building code violations, including failure to provide enough exits, city officials said Monday. A judge had denied a request by the owners to reopen.

"The owner knows damn well that he is not to open that second-floor facility," said fire Commissioner James Joyce.

But the city's statements were challenged within hours by an attorney for the nightclub operators, who said both sides had agreed that only one section of the second-floor had to be closed.

Witnesses described a frenzied scene of some people trying to climb through the ceiling, while others were trampled in the frantic rush for an exit, their faces and bodies flattened against the glass front door.

Some people fainted on the club floor; others were coughing and crying, gagging and blindly groping for any way out.

"People were being trapped underneath you . . . so we're actually standing on people's heads and we didn't even know it," said Amishoov Blackwell, 30. "It was just bodies lying everywhere."

Blackwell said one man crushed between two people told him: " 'I can't breathe! I want you to hold my hand, man. If I don't make it, tell my mom that I love her!' He just basically collapsed."

Some witnesses reported that the lights were cut in the stairwell.

On Monday afternoon, Joyce backed off earlier statements that firefighters had used sledgehammers and pry bars to open other doors in the half-block-long building.

Larry Langford, a Fire Department spokesman, said one door was locked and another was blocked by laundry bags or other items from the first-floor restaurant.

While that would be in violation of city fire codes, it apparently didn't contribute to the deaths, as officials said the crowd surged down a single front exit in the pandemonium.

Joyce said Fire Department inspectors visited the first-floor restaurant in October but did not visit the second-floor nightclub, because they had no reason to suspect it was open.

Terry Hillard, superintendent of the Chicago Police Department, said there had been at least 80 incidents, including assaults and shootings, in and around the nightclub in the past three years, prompting numerous neighborhood complaints and a petition to shut the place down. The club's owners were being interviewed by the police Monday and could not be reached for comment.

Dorothy Capers, the city's deputy corporation counsel, said officials had been in court three times since July, most recently last month, trying to enforce the order barring use of the second story, which was shuttered because of shoddy rehabilitation work and stairwells and exit lights that were not up to code. The owner of the building is Lesly Motors, a car dealership, and the liquor license is held by a corporation called Le Mirage.

But the club, which was frequented by professional athletes and entertainers, has been advertised on the Internet and featured in current nightlife listings.

A lawyer for the club, Andre Grant, said the city knew the club was operating.

"This is open use and the city is 100 percent aware of it, and in fact management has asked consistently and repeatedly the city to assist with crowd control," he said.

Police Superintendent Terry Hillard said investigators were trying to sort out conflicting stories about the source of the Mace or pepper spray and obtain videotape from inside the club. Witnesses said the spray may have come from the club's security guards trying to break up a fight between at least two women.

Grant said the club had been rented to private promoters for the night -- a firm he identified as Envy Entertainment. The promoters provided 18 security guards of their own in addition to 10 supplied by the club, Grant said. He said it was the promoters' security guards who used the spray.

"Lives were tragically and senselessly lost, pinned down by a stampeding crowd," Hillard said.

"We will get to the bottom of this," he said.

Friends and family of missing patrons flocked to the morgue Monday afternoon, searching for information and holding out hope that their loved ones were still alive.

"I just can't understand it," said Herschel Blake, who was looking for his 22-year-old grandson, Michael. "His mother called me and said: 'Your grandson is dead. The door was locked. There was only one way out of the place.' "

Witnesses said some people were stomped on; many victims suffered crushing chest and head injuries. By Monday evening only seven of the injured remained hospitalized. Most of the dead were in their 20s or early 30s. At least nine died from multiple trauma and four from cardiac arrest, authorities said.

"Everybody smashed; people crying, couldn't breathe," said clubgoer Reggie Clark. "Two ladies next to me died. A guy under me passed out."

Water and ice were passed to some of those trapped as rescuers struggled to pull them from the building.

"You could see a mound of people," said Cory Thomas, 33, who went to the club to pick up two friends. "People were stacking on top of each other, screaming and gagging, I guess from the pepper spray. The door got blocked because there were too many people stacked up against it."

"I saw them taking out a pregnant woman," Thomas said. "She was in bad shape. I saw at least 10 lifeless bodies."

The Rev. Jesse Jackson, who the day with relatives of victims and survivors, said those inside told him someone had yelled "poison gas" and that fears of a terrorist attack fueled the chaos.

Epitome and E2, in a 16,000-square-foot landmarked building two blocks from the McCormick Place convention center, opened in May 2000. Serving American cuisine with an international flair, like filet mignon wrapped in applewood-smoked bacon with a mushroom and Shiraz reduction, the restaurant attracted black professionals and politicians, several of whom had fundraisers there.

The nightclub, with cover charges of $15 to $100 -- it was $20 on Sunday night -- often had special events, including performances by the R&B star R. Kelly and the rapper 50 Cent.

-- Information from the New York Times was used in this report.

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