CHICAGO (AP) _ The city will file criminal contempt charges against the owners of the nightclub where 21 people were killed in a stampede, because the club had been ordered closed by a court order, Mayor Richard M. Daley said Tuesday.

``This tragedy is especially heartbreaking, first because the victims were so young,'' Daley said. ``Secondly, because it was a disaster that absolutely should never have happened.''

Daley and other city officials rejected the contention by owners of the E2 nightclub that they had a deal to stay open, despite a list of building code violations including failure to provide enough exits.

``Obviously these people were intent on breaking the law, and they broke the law,'' city corporation counsel Mara Georges said at a late morning news conference.

Hundreds of people packed into the second-floor E2 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, 21 people died and 57 were injured. It was one of the deadliest stampedes in recent memory.

Georges said the city had done everything in its power to keep the nightclub closed with action in civil housing court.

``In this situation we followed the law ... yet they violated those court orders,'' Georges said. ``There is nothing the city could have done absent being at this property twenty-four hours a day.''

But police Superintendent Terry Hillard said the police department did not know that the nightclub was supposed to be closed.

``We were not aware of this order,'' Hillard said.

Georges said the city did not have the authority to padlock a business in this situation.

Daley said the city would review the way court orders are enforced.

Hillard also offered an update on the investigation so far, saying that a security guard at the club admitted that he sprayed pepper spray early Monday morning.

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 the rapper 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.

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 Monday 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.

No telephone number for Envy Entertainment was listed.

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.

On Tuesday, 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 Monday.

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.

The disaster recalled similar tragedies at concerts and other events. In 1979, 11 people were killed in Cincinnati in a crush to get into a concert by The Who. In 1991, eight suffocated in a pileup of people trying to get into City College of New York gymnasium for a charity basketball game played by rappers. A ninth person died later.

At a late evening prayer vigil outside the Michigan Avenue club, David McGraw leaned against the window and wept for his 24-year-old daughter, Latorya McGraw, who had died on the other side of the glass.

``I'm just sad and I'm hurt,'' he said. ``It's tragic.''

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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