Investigators examining the E2 deaths found that the nightclub at 2347 S. Michigan Ave. was packed with more than 1,000 people in the early morning hours of Feb. 17, 2003, three times the number the club could safely accommodate, according to one expert.

Some E2 patrons reported that one or more of the club's exit doors were locked. Fire officials later said that was not the case. In any event, patrons were either unaware of or unable to access the club's back exits, which were supposed to be clearly marked. Instead patrons rushed into the narrow front stairwell, public safety officials said, where some were crushed to death.

The city's Fire Prevention Bureau is responsible for inspecting a wide range of commercial and residential buildings and includes 79 inspector positions. That number is down from what it was at the time of the E2 deaths, but the Fire Department said the decrease is related to changes in the scope of the bureau's responsibility and that weekend nightclub inspections have not been affected.

Ford said that except on nights like New Year's Eve, when the Fire Department adds extra inspectors, there is no additional cost to the weekend inspection program because weekend shifts already are a regular part of Fire Department operations.

The city's Buildings Department also inspects venues and checks for exit violations as defined by city code. Those inspections occur during weekday business hours when nightclubs are closed.

Before 2003, the Fire Department also scheduled many of its checks for crowding and exit violations during weekdays, when clubs were empty. The weekend inspection program began less than a month after the E2 deaths.

But the city has not enforced its ordinance requiring weekly internal inspections of exits, even though it has been on the books for 20 years.

Ford, who took a look at the ordinance after being asked about it by the Tribune, said he did not believe it would measurably improve compliance with city codes.

"It's sort of like you're asking a venue to self-police itself, which is not the best possible way to do anything," he said. "And now you have a mountain of paper that means absolutely nothing."

It's not uncommon for public agencies to require internal inspections between annual government checks. That's how the state monitors carnival rides and ski lifts, for example.

Owners of some nightclubs and other venues say they voluntarily do internal inspections anyway, like Farid Nobahar, general manager at Alhambra Palace, a restaurant and event space in West Town.

"The management team we have is trained; we have all the exit doors and make sure they're unlocked. It's really important," he said. "We have an in-house mechanic who goes around to make sure."

Dick Simpson, a former Chicago alderman and a political science professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago, called the ordinance "a useful idea (that) could simply be modified to make it workable and enforced."

He said the city could eliminate the burden of paperwork filed three times a year but maintain the requirement that venues keep ledgers of their weekly inspections that could be viewed by city inspectors during their annual visits. "There's no need to ship (forms) down to City Hall," he said.

The ordinance was approved by the City Council in 1993. Former longtime Ald. Bernard Stone, who introduced it, could not recall the ordinance specifically but said he worked closely with the Fire Prevention Bureau.

"I might have been advised by fire prevention that it might have been a good cautionary thing to introduce," Stone said.

When it came to enforcement, he said, "I don't know what happened."