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All sides trade blame in club deaths

Compiled from Times wires
© St. Petersburg Times
published February 19, 2003

CHICAGO -- City officials acknowledged Tuesday that they did nothing to ensure a restaurant-nightclub where 21 people died in a stampede early Monday was obeying a court order barring entry to its second floor but laid the responsibility squarely on the club's owners, whom they described as reckless and negligent.

Mara Georges, Chicago's corporation counsel, admitted that her department did not even notify the Police Department, which frequently responds to disturbances at the club, E2, of the July order shutting it down or post a sign informing the public it was unsafe.

Georges went to court Tuesday afternoon seeking criminal contempt charges against the club and tried unsuccessfully to jail its owner, Dwain Kyles, though the nightclub and the first-floor restaurant, Epitome, agreed to close temporarily.

The city also asked the judge to fine Kyles and his company, Le Mirage Inc., which owns the nightclub, and to fine a second company, Lesly Motors Inc., which owns the building.

The judge did not immediately act on the request. He said he would give the two companies 10 days to respond. Kyles appeared at the city's legal office late Tuesday and accepted a summons to appear in court on March 7.

Mayor Richard Daley said he had ordered city departments to review building and fire codes and regulations regarding private security guards to determine if changes in the law are needed.

The city and the club, in the South Loop, have been sparring for months over building and fire code violations, as well as the club's liquor license, which was suspended for several days as recently as January. African-American ministers and politicians, including the Rev. Jesse Jackson, had rallied around Kyles, who said he was the victim of a "witch hunt" against black-owned businesses.

Since a meeting of local leaders last year at the office of the Chicago Defender newspaper, across the street from the club, Epitome and E2 had played host to several prayer breakfasts, political fundraisers, community forums sponsored by a black radio station, and fraternity and sorority dinners. Jackson was among those who wrote letters to the mayor and the police department urging them to support Kyles' request for additional late-night patrols outside the club. The police have responded to at least 80 incidents, including several shootings, in and around the club since 2000.

Tuesday, as Jackson consulted Johnnie Cochran Jr. about filing a lawsuit on behalf of the victims, some people criticized him for helping keep a dangerous club open, particularly because of his long relationship with Kyles. The club owner's father, the Rev. Samuel Billy Kyles, a founding member of Jackson's Operation PUSH, was with the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. the night he died.

But Jackson and other ministers who supported the club, as well as a bartender who worked there, said they had no idea there was a court order prohibiting use of the second floor. They accused the city of shirking its enforcement responsibilities and said officials should have known the club was operating because of widespread advertisement of its events, continued police activity and neighbors' complaints.

Details continued to emerge Tuesday about what happened inside the nightclub to set off the stampede, in which people were crushed on a narrow staircase as they choked on pepper spray that security guards used to break up a brawl. Crowd estimates by witnesses ranged wildly from 400 to 1,500; the occupancy limit of the club is unclear because the required placard was not displayed, officials said.

Police Superintendent Terry Hillard said that one security guard had admitted using pepper spray to break up a fight on the dance floor but that other witnesses said the guards -- some of whom were hired by a separate company, Envy Productions & Entertainment Co. -- did not carry chemical agents.

In the panic, clubgoers who had been partying moments earlier found themselves squashed in the stairway. Bodies were trampled and flattened against the glass doors.

Some witnesses said the door at the bottom of the stairwell became blocked by the mass of people. Others said security guards closed it shortly after the stampede began, trapping people inside.

Police officials said they are trying to locate promoter Marco Flores of Envy Productions. Hillard said Flores has left the state. Envy had rented the club and provided security guards for the event.

Jackson and Andre Grant, a lawyer for the club, said the melee began not because of the use of pepper spray, but because someone yelled, "poison gas" and "terror attack." City officials, however, criticized the guards.

"I've been around a long time," said fire Commissioner James Joyce. "I've never heard of spraying the crowd. That's tantamount to shouting, 'Fire!' in a crowded theater."

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

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