CHICAGO — A Circuit Court judge shut down the Epitome restaurant and its upstairs nightclub, E2, on Tuesday, one day after 21 people were killed and dozens more injured during an exodus caused when security guards used pepper spray in the club to break up a fight.
Attorneys for the city also asked Judge Daniel Lynch to jail one of the owners for contempt of court, alleging Dwain Kyles knowingly violated two court orders Lynch issued last summer that should have closed the upstairs for lack of exits and other safety concerns
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday February 20, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 42 words Type of Material: Correction
Club tragedy -- An article Wednesday in Section A about the stampede that killed 21 people at a Chicago nightclub incorrectly said one of the owners, Dwain Kyles, once worked for Rep. Harold E. Ford Jr. In fact, Kyles had worked for Harold E. Ford Sr.
Lynch denied the request, saying the city had not notified Kyles it was seeking such action. The judge said he would give Kyles, a lawyer and former congressional aide, 10 days to respond to the city's formal notification before reconsidering the felony contempt charges.
As attorneys for the city and Kyles battled in a downtown courtroom, relatives of the dead flocked to lawyers Tuesday; at least two filed wrongful-death lawsuits against the club and the city.
Mayor Richard M. Daley, meanwhile, spoke for the first time about the disaster.
"This tragedy is especially heartbreaking, first because the victims were so young, and second because it was a disaster that absolutely should not have happened," Daley said. "Our job is to find out what went wrong and who was responsible and to do whatever needs to be done to make sure that nothing like this ever happens again in our city."
As Daley spoke, police were searching for Marco Flores, a club promoter who had organized the event that turned deadly, authorities said. Flores, who works for a company called Envy Entertainment, left the state on a plane Monday, officials said. It was not clear whether his trip had been planned before the disaster or whether he was fleeing in its wake, police said.
Lynch had ordered the second-floor club at the South Side restaurant closed last year because of 11 safety violations, including a lack of exits and proper exit signs. Through an attorney, the owners said they had later reached an agreement with building officials to keep the second floor open, and close only adjacent VIP lounges, which were not used Sunday night.
The court orders, the first signed by Lynch on July 19 and the second Aug. 9, issue a "mandatory order not to occupy [the] 2nd floor." The second order describes the first as including both the "2nd floor and mezzanine."
Another court document in the case says, however, the occupancy ban applies only to "2nd floor VIP rooms."
City officials denied any agreement was made to allow for the dance floor's continued operations. "The court order is very clear," Daley said. "The second floor of the building was not to be occupied, yet the club continued to operate on the second floor."
The disaster began unfolding about 2:15 a.m. Monday, when private security guards used pepper spray in an effort to break up a dance-floor fight between two women. As the powerful spray spread throughout the hot, largely unventilated club, patrons began to flee down the single stairwell leading to the front door.
Some witnesses said guards at first blocked them from escaping, though police could not confirm that. Within minutes, people were tripping, falling and piling up in the stairwell, even as more club-goers tried to make their way outside.
By the time firefighters arrived less than 10 minutes later, corpses and injured people were smashed against the double-paned glass exit way. Three were pronounced dead at the scene, the rest at area hospitals. Nearly 70 people, including two firefighters, were injured.
All but two of the injured, both patrons, had been released from the hospital by late Tuesday.
At a news conference at City Hall, officials faced tough questions Tuesday about why the city hadn't worked harder to close down the business.
"These were people bent on violating the law," said the city's top attorney, Mara Georges.
Many questioned how a popular club on South Michigan Avenue, the main thoroughfare, could have avoided a crackdown by city officials armed with two court orders. The club drew about 500 people on the night of the disaster.
"Absent the city being at this property 24 hours a day, seven days a week, there is no way to ensure that these people are going to follow the law," Georges said. "There is nothing the city could have done."
Although police have been called to disturbances at the club 80 times since 2000, Police Commissioner Terry Hillard said his department was not aware of any court order closing the business.
Lawyers representing LeMirage Inc., the corporate owners of the club, said the company had worked out an agreement with the city in October to close the VIP lounges but keep the club area open, and denied the business had been operating illegally at the time of the disaster.
"They [the city's lawyers] are wrong, absolutely wrong," attorney Tom Royce said outside court. "Charges of irresponsibility are inappropriate."