CHICAGO - City officials acknowledged yesterday 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 S. Georges, Chicago's corporation counsel, admitted that her department did not 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 yesterday afternoon seeking criminal contempt charges against the club and tried - unsuccessfully - to put its owner in jail, though the city did succeed in getting both the nightclub and the first-floor restaurant, Epitome, shuttered temporarily.
"Here we have people who were bent on breaking the law," Georges said of the club's owners at a news conference yesterday morning. "If the city put a padlock on the door they would have cut off the padlock. If the city put out a sign they would have cut down the sign. Absent the city being at this property 24 hours a day, seven days a week, there is nothing the city could have done."
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 the club's owner, Dwain J. 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 held several prayer breakfasts, political fund raisers, 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.
Yesterday, 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 complaints from neighbors.
"The city has become very defensive about unenforced codes, what they knew when," said Jackson, who has asked the state attorney general to conduct an independent investigation. "All who are culpable must be in the eye of the analysis. The owners, those responsible for the building being locked, those who didn't enforce the law. The public safety and security is in the hands of public officials whose charge that is."
As for his relationship with Kyles, a lawyer and entrepreneur, Jackson said: "I do know the owners. I also know the police chief. I also know the fire chief. And we know some of the victims' family members, they're members of our organization. I know all of them because it's in the middle of my community."
Kyles, along with the building's owner, Lesly Benodin, and Calvin Hollins Jr., a consultant to the club, did not return telephone messages yesterday.
Details continued to emerge 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.
Terry Hillard, the police superintendent, said that one security guard had admitted using pepper spray to break up a fight on the E2 dance floor but that other witnesses said the security guards - some of whom were hired by a separate company, Envy Entertainment, which sponsored Sunday night's party - did not carry chemical agents. 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 behavior of the guards, who some witnesses say formed a human chain to prevent people from exiting.
"Let's remember one thing here: There was reckless conduct on the part of management," said James T. Joyce, the fire commissioner. "I've been around a long time. I've never heard of spraying the crowd. That's tantamount to shouting, 'Fire!' in a crowded theater. Spraying the crowd is reckless conduct."
Mayor Richard M. Daley said the fire was "especially heartbreaking" because the victims were young - ages 19 to 43 - and "because it was a disaster that absolutely should never have happened." He asked area churches to ring their bells 21 times at noon on Sunday and vowed the city would "use every tool at its disposal to make sure that justice is done."
In court yesterday afternoon, Cook County Circuit Judge Daniel J. Lynch set a hearing for next month on the city's request to hold the club criminally liable for violating the court order and also ordered the city to serve notice on Kyles that it will seek penalties against him personally of up to a year in jail. The Cook County state's attorney's office said it was consulting with detectives about whether any more serious charges would be appropriate.