Chicago Nightclub Stampede Kills 21
CHICAGO (AP) _ Hundreds of screaming guests rushed the exits of a crowded nightclub Monday after someone used pepper spray or Mace, and at least 21 people were crushed to death or smothered in the panic, officials said.
Firefighters had to use sledgehammers and pry bars to open locked or blocked doors that prevented some club-goers from fleeing, Fire Commissioner James Joyce said at a late morning briefing. Hospitals reported treating at least 53 for everything from critical injuries to asthma-like symptoms.
``There are people trying to get out that could not get out,″ Joyce said. ``Locked and blocked doors are a contributing factor. We can’t explain how management or ownership would allow that.″
All but one of the exits were locked or blocked, in some cases by bags of laundry from the first-floor restaurant.
The locked doors are a fire code violation, Joyce said.
Twenty-one people were confirmed dead in the tragedy at the Epitome Night Club, Chicago Police spokesman Pat Camden said.
``Everybody smashed; people crying, couldn’t breathe,″ said club-goer Reggie Clark. ``Two ladies next to me died. A guy under me passed out.″
Some witnesses reported that panic broke out after the guards used pepper spray or Mace to break up a fight, but authorities did not immediately confirm that. Police Commissioner Terry Hillard said investigators are trying to sort out conflicting stories about the source of the spray, and were retrieving a video from inside the club.
``We will get to the bottom of this,″ Hillard said. ``Right now our investigation is at full tilt.″
Authorities initially reported as many as 1,500 people were in the nightclub, but Joyce said he could not confirm that number. He said the first floor had an occupancy placard for 327 people, but the second-floor did not have a placard.
``It appears a disturbance from within led to a mass chaos where people headed for the door. Most of the fatalities appear to have been crushed or had injuries due to suffocation,″ said police Officer Ozzie Rodriguez.
The club is located in the Near South Side, a commercial district near the McCormick Place convention center.
Cory Thomas, 33, went to the club to pick up two friends. As he waited outside, he saw people inside the club start to back up against the glass front door.
``You could see a mound of people. People were stacking on top of each other, screaming and gagging, I guess from the pepper spray. The door got blocked because there were too many people stacked up against it,″ he said.
``I saw them taking out a pregnant woman,″ Thomas said. ``She was in bad shape. I saw at least 10 lifeless bodies.″
Kristy Mitchell, 22, was one of the people trampled on the stairway.
``People were stomping my legs,″ she said. ``When they pulled me up, I was dizzy and I couldn’t breathe.″
Amishoov Blackwell, 30, was checking his coat on the second floor when people started rushing past him. The flow of the crowd pushed him back down the stairs and he fell on top of several people, he said. He was trapped on top of the others until firefighters rescued him about 30 minutes later.
``It wasn’t nothing but two girls fighting,″ Blackwell said. ``Why’d they have to spray Mace?″
Hours after the disaster, Chiquita Rhodes was still searching for her 19-year-old sister, Charita.
``I’ve been to every emergency room,″ Rhodes said. She was told by officials to return to the medical examiner’s office around noon, when the bodies would be available for relatives to identify.
She said Charita was holding onto a friend, but they were separated in the crush. A firefighter found Charita’s cell phone, she added.
The Rev. Jesse Jackson arrived at the scene early Monday and urged community members to help each other.
``We are asking area ministers to go to hospitals,″ Jackson said. ``My people are overwhelmed with the suddenness of this. At a time like this, you have to lean on your faith.″
The president of a Chicago entertainment agency that has booked acts at the club said access to the building was unsafe for large crowds.
``The doorway was obviously inadequate for an emergency,″ said Ron Onesti of Onesti Entertainment Co. ``When the place is filled to capacity, the doorway is very thin.″
Photographs on Onesti’s Web site depict packed crowds at the nightclub. Onesti maintained that his agency had nothing to do with managing the club and hadn’t had any dealings involving it in about a year.
The melee marks one of the nation’s deadliest stampedes.
In December 1991, nine young people were crushed to death in a gymnasium stairwell while awaiting a celebrity basketball game in New York.
In December 1979, 11 people were killed in Cincinnati in a crush to get into a concert by The Who.