Charges Loom In Chicago Nightclub Deaths

City officials threatened to seek criminal charges against the Chicago nightclub where 21 people were killed early Sunday in a stampede, saying the owners violated a court order by keeping the club op

City officials threatened to seek criminal charges against the Chicago nightclub where 21 people were killed early Sunday in a stampede, saying the owners violated a court order by keeping the club open. Authorities say the E2 club had been ordered to shut down because of safety violations, including failure to provide enough exits.

"The management of this business is well aware of this court order," Chicago fire Commissioner James Joyce said at a news conference. An attorney for the club quickly responded to the city's allegations, telling a news conference that his client had a deal to stay open.

E2 was the site of one of the deadliest stampedes in recent memory. Hundreds of people packed into the second-floor club on the city's South Side stampeded down a stairwell after security guards broke up a fight and someone sprayed pepper gas or Mace. A lawyer for the club operators suggested someone might have shouted a warning about a terrorist attack.

In the resulting panic, clubgoers found themselves squashed in the stairway, and bodies were flattened against the glass doors. Twenty-one people died and 57 were injured.

"We were literally piled from the top to the bottom of those steps, on top of people, not able to move with people constantly pushing," said witness Lemont James Jr., who suffered a dislocated jaw.

Police Superintendent Terry Hillard said the club operated an elaborate videotaping setup and said police were trying to monitor tapes to determine exactly what had happened. The club was operated by Le Mirage All-Night Studio Inc., which also owned the Epitome restaurant downstairs. E2 has featured such performers as R. Kelly and 50 Cent.

City officials pointed to a court order signed in July by Cook County Circuit Judge Daniel J. Lynch telling owners to shut down second-floor operations. Three months earlier a city complaint against the nightclub listed 11 alleged building-code violations, ranging from failure to submit architectural plans and engineering reports to failure to provide enough exits.

Officials said criminal contempt charges could be filed as early as Tuesday. "The owner knows damn well he is not to operate that second-floor facility," Joyce said.

But an attorney for Le Mirage, Andre Grant, said lawyers for both sides had reached a deal in October under which the second-floor nightclub would remain in operation. Another court hearing was scheduled for next month, he said. Under the deal, Grant said, an upper level section of VIP seating, known as the skyboxes, was to be closed. The skyboxes were closed at the time of Monday's disaster, he said.

City officials made no mention of any deal to keep the club open in their public statements but 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.

Grant said his clients had rented the club to private promoters, a firm called Envy Entertainment, for Sunday night and those promoters brought in 18 security guards besides 10 supplied by Le Mirage. He said it was the Envy security guards who sprayed pepper gas or Mace.

Public records identified the president and principal officer of Le Mirage as Dwain Kyles. The Rev. Jesse Jackson said that Kyles was the son of a longtime friend and had voluntarily submitted to questioning by police.

Today, Jackson called for an independent investigation of the tragedy by Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan. He said the club owner should not be made a scapegoat and the city shares some blame for not enforcing codes, adding, "It is the job of inspectors and officials to do just that."

Joyce said the owner of the building was Lesly Motors Inc., a company that had once owned an auto dealership next door but sold out three years ago. Calls to the office and home of James R. Hardt, an attorney representing Lesly Motors in the city proceedings, were not immediately returned.

Throughout the day Monday, friends and relatives of the victims visited area hospitals in search of survivors or made their way to the Cook County Medical Examiner's office to identify the dead. Survivors described a horrific scene: Hundreds of screaming people stumbling down the darkened stairs only to find themselves trapped at the bottom, gasping for air and stepping on bodies.

"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, a 30-year-old patron. "It was just bodies laying everywhere."

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