CHICAGO - At least 21 people died and 30 more were seriously injured early yesterday in a terrifying stampede that erupted at a swank after-hours club on the South Side when security guards used mace and pepper spray to halt a fistfight between two women, authorities and witnesses said.
The commissioner of the Chicago Fire Department, James T. Joyce, said investigators had found numerous code violations at the club, E2, including a number of locked and blocked doors, and the club was operating in defiance of a month-old court order decreeing that it be shut down.
The second-floor club, above the upscale steak and seafood restaurant Epitome, is known for raucous dance parties.
Joyce said most of the dead suffered cardiac arrest in the crush of 1,500 or so people - perhaps twice the permitted occupancy - who were pouring down a single, narrow staircase.
"There are people who were trying to get out who could not get out," Joyce said at a news conference, noting that the required occupancy placard was not displayed on the second floor and that bags of laundry had been improperly stored in front of several doors.
"We can't explain how management or ownership would allow that to happen," he said.
E2's owners were being interviewed by the police and could not be reached.
The superintendent of the Chicago Police Department, Terry Hilliard, said investigators were sorting through conflicting accounts of the spraying and would study videotape taken in the club to try to determine who was responsible.
Hilliard said there had been at least 80 incidents, including assaults and shootings, in and around the nightclub over the past three years.
Neighbors said they frequently complained about noise and had even started a petition to shut down the club.
Even the club's owners had reportedly pleaded unsuccessfully for more police patrols in the area.
Survivors of the stampede described a chaotic mob scene, with people gasping for breath through the crush of the crowd and the noxious sprays as people clambered over each to try to get down the stairs.
The first 911 call came at 2:23 a.m. from a pregnant woman near the bottom of the pile, officials said.
One survivor, Marsha Redmon, 24, recalled finding herself underfoot. "I just got trampled," said Redmon, who was treated for a sprained ankle at the University of Illinois-Chicago Medical Center and released about 11 a.m. "Everybody was on top of me. I survived because I started praying," said Redmon, the mother of a 2-year-old. "I just thought, 'Who's going to take care of my baby?'
"There was somebody dead on top of me. He wasn't breathing," she added. "They performed CPR, but he just never came to. I thought, 'I've got to get out of here.'"
Comparing the mayhem to the sinking of the Titanic or the 9/11 evacuation of the World Trade Center, witnesses said security guards had formed a human chain to try to control the crowd. Some said they feared the club had been attacked by terrorists.
Redmon said she heard the disc jockey tell the guards to use Mace as the fistfight that began near his booth began to escalate.
Trudell Ferguson said he was gagging from the spray when he nearly tripped over two women lying on the floor in front of him. He picked up the more petite of the women, he said, but because he was choking himself, could not carry both to safety.
The victims were taken to seven hospitals, and relatives of club patrons were left to conduct a macabre search.
"She never came home," Marcia Green, 27, said of her 19-year-old sister, Charita Rhodes, as Green made the rounds of four hospitals, returning to some twice.
"The last time she was seen was with a friend, holding hands and trying to get out of the building, but I think they got separated.
"This is not like her not to call," Green said. "It looks like we are going to have to go to the morgue."