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Chicago’s E2 nightclub disaster

Updated on September 25, 2010

A Chicago Police Officer Attempts to Rescue Patrons in this Associated Press Photo

E2 Nightclubs Stampede Chicago

One of the strangest disasters in Chicago history took place on February 17, 2003, in the middle of another notorious Chicago winter.  It took the lives of 21 people and injured more than 50.  The Chicago news was filled with images of patrons from the nightclub piled up and hopelessly jammed in the club’s doorway.  All of it could have been prevented had the club owners listened to those who cited them for various violations.  The club owners, ultimately, ended up in jail.

A crowded place

The E2 nightclub was located on Chicago’s south side and was located above the Epitome Restaurant.  The club was owned by Dwain Kyles and Calvin Hollis, who also owned the restaurant below.  The club was primarily owned and visited by African-Americans, and any attempts to close the club were met with protest, including protest lead by Jesse Jackson.

On February 17 the club was packed, as was normal.  However, a fight broke out between roughly 15 patrons.  Security was called and pepper spray was used on the fighting and scuffling patrons.  The man security believed had started the fight was removed from the club once the fight had been dispersed.  However, the pepper spray began to spread throughout the club.

A panic ensues

As the pepper spray began to spread patrons who had nothing to do with the fight began to cough, their eyes began to tear up and they began having difficulty breathing.  One rumor states that someone yelled that it was some kind of chemical attack.  Another rumor states that a patron shouted it was Osama Bin Laden attacking the club.  Whatever it was that sparked the panic, the huge crowd began to run for the door.

The only way out of the club was down a narrow staircase.  The doors at the bottom, in violation of fire codes, opened inward.  As the flood of people pressed against the doors, those at the top of the stairs had no idea that those at the bottom were being crushed.  Although the doors were normally kept open during business hours they had been closed when those who were thought to have started the fight were thrown out.  

The throng of people became hopelessly bottlenecked in the doorway.  People who were on the stairs were knocked down and they were soon trampled and crushes. All 21 patrons who died did so because of compressional asphyxiation.  More than 1,500 patrons were in the club at the time the panic started and all of them were trying to leave at the same time.

The aftermath

The club had been cited many times with fire code violations.  The two owners had been cited previously for hazards within the club and, in 2002, the club had been told to shut down the E2.  However, the owners stated they believed that the citation only applied to a special VIP section located in the club and not the entire club itself.

The owners then accused city inspectors of being incompetent.  The inspectors stated they thought that the club had been shut down and that only the restaurant was still open and earning money.  The owners and their attorneys replied that police officers were routinely seen as patrons of the nightclub.

Kyles and Hollins were eventually charged and put on trial.  It was claimed that the security team had not been properly trained in the use of pepper spray.  The owners were also cited for violations such as over-crowding and faulty exit lighting.  

Once the trial was over, in 2009, the two owners were found innocent of manslaughter charges.  However, they were convicted of criminal contempt due to the previous violations that had been found against them and the club.  They were sentenced to two years in prison.  The club, meanwhile, was closed after the incident and has never re-opened.

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