gone_2003_02_17_Chicago

 

Chicago seeks to shutter nightclub

City also asks court to find owner defied order to close second floor.  Attorneys representing victims watch an expert witness take measurements in the stairwell leading from the second floor E2 nightclub on Tuesday.

  

MSNBC STAFF AND WIRE REPORTS

CHICAGO, Feb. 20 —  The city wants to permanently shutter a nightclub where 21 people died in a stampede and prevent its owner from doing business in Chicago. ‘There has been enough of a flagrant disregard here to warrant the fact that this gentleman should not hold another license within the city.’

 

— MARA GEORGES, Lawyer for the city         

CITY CORPORATION COUNSEL Mara Georges on Wednesday initiated administrative proceedings to revoke the food, liquor and other licenses that allowed Le Mirage Studio Ltd., which owns the Epitome restaurant and second-floor E2 nightclub, to keep the businesses open.  Georges also wants to bar the president of Le Mirage, Dwain J. Kyles, from holding any other city license. “There has been enough of a flagrant disregard here to warrant the fact that this gentleman should not hold another license within the city,” Georges said. On Tuesday, the city asked that the club’s landlord, Le Mirage and Kyles be found in criminal contempt for defying a court order last summer to stop using the second floor because of housing code violations. A hearing was set for March 7.

      

‘SORROW ... FOR THESE FAMILIES’

Afterward, Kyles spoke of the “sorrow that I feel for these families,” but did not publicly comment on the allegation that he ignored a court order. Kyles is a prominent member of Chicago’s black community. His father, the Rev. Billy Kyles of Memphis, and civil rights leader Jesse Jackson are longtime friends. Jackson and Kyles’ father were with the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in April 1968 when King was murdered.

 

Monday’s deadly stampede at the popular nightclub was triggered when at least one security guard used pepper spray to break up a fight.

In the panic, patrons bolted down a narrow stairway, and bodies were trampled and flattened against a single glass door at first-floor exit. More than 50 people were injured. In addition, attorneys who represent the estate of one of the stampede victims and another woman who was injured said a private building inspector they hired to examine the nightclub found several alleged violations. The E2 nightspot had a reputation as a magnet for celebrities and athletes, but it also had a history of trouble with city regulators and the police, who were called to the location repeatedly because of disturbances.

      

SECOND-FLOOR CLOSURE ORDERED

Building inspectors cited the establishment for 11 code violations, and last July, a Cook County Circuit Court judge ordered the building landlord and Kyles to stop using the second floor, where the nightclub is located. An attorney for Kyles claims the judge’s order pertained to only one section of the nightclub. But in a transcript from an October hearing, Kyles answered “Yes” when the judge asked if he agreed the mezzanine, second floor and VIP rooms should remain closed.  Clubgoers crushed in a doorway beg for help as rescuers try to free them at the E2 nightclub in Chicago early Monday.

 

When authorities tried to shut down the Epitome restaurant and the E2 nightclub last year, community leaders rushed to defend it, saying it was an important, black-owned business. Jackson called Epitome “one of the few fine dining establishments in Chicago owned and operated by African Americans” in a letter to a city alderman.

Whether the outcry helped keep the club open was unknown. City officials said a court order closing the nightclub was clear, while club attorneys say it was open to interpretation. Jackson had rushed to the scene within a few hours of the tragedy, offering condolences to victims while defending Kyles. He called his childhood friend an upstanding example of a young professional person in our community,” and suggested the city shares some liability for not enforcing the court order.

      

At a court hearing on Tuesday, the city sought immediate action on its petition to hold Kyles in criminal contempt. But Cook County Circuit Judge Daniel Lynch told city attorneys that Kyles had not yet been served with the papers. The city also asked the judge to fine Kyles and Le Mirage Inc., as well as Lesly Motors Inc., which owns the building. But the judge said he would give the parties 10 days to answer the complaint.

      

MAYOR SAYS OWNERS TO BLAME

At a news conference the same day, Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley said that the owners of the club were squarely to blame for the disaster. “You don’t have a right to disobey a court order until someone catches you or until a disaster happens,” he said.

 

Georges, the city attorney, also said city officials 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 24 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,” he said.

 

And 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 sky boxes, was to be closed. The sky boxes were closed Monday, he said. He also said that a private promoter, Envy Entertainment, which rented the club for Sunday night, bore some responsibility for the incident. He said Envy brought in 18 security guards besides 10 supplied by Le Mirage and it was the Envy guards who sprayed pepper gas or Mace.

      

PROMOTER’S LAWYER SPEAKS OUT

But Joseph Lopez, a lawyer for Envy President Marco Flores, told the Chicago Tribune that his client had paid for added security during the dance party, but that club management was solely responsible for hiring the guards. He also said that Flores had been producing entertainment at the club for six months on a handshake agreement with the club owner. Survivors of the stampede described a horrific pileup as people poured down the stairs, oblivious to the human logjam at the dooway. Some have told investigators that guards at the door wouldn’t immediately let people out the door. “We were literally piled from the top to the bottom of those steps, on top of people, not able to move with people constantly pushing,” said witness Lemont James Jr., who suffered a dislocated jaw.

 

Stampede victims saw death coming

Feb. 17 — Two women trapped early Monday in the Chicago club where 21 people were stampeded or crushed to death tell NBC’s Kim Vatis what they saw.

 

“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.” At a Monday evening prayer vigil outside the Michigan Avenue club, David McGraw leaned against the window and wept for his daughter, 24-year-old 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.”

 

The Associated Press contributed to this report.