Thursday, February 20, 2003, Vol. 117, No. 36

Building in deadly Chicago

Building in deadly Chicago

club stampede ordered closed

The building housing a Chicago nightclub where 21 people died in a panicked rush for the exit was ordered closed Tuesday as city lawyers sought to jail the owner and the first lawsuits were filed in the case.

Housing Court Judge Daniel Lynch refused to grant the city's request to have the club's primary owner, Dwain Kyles, jailed for up to a year on a contempt charge. Kyles was summoned to appear Friday and lawyers for LeMirage were given time to prepare their defense.

Kyles is the son of Memphian Rev. Samuel Kyles.

A city building inspector testified at a Cook County Court hearing that cracks had formed in trusses holding up the structure's roof and a balcony inside the club since his last inspection four months ago, and he warned that the entire building could collapse.

Lawyers representing LeMirage Inc., owners of the now-shuttered E2 club, agreed to temporarily close the Epitome restaurant on the building's first floor and erect a protective canopy around the two-story structure, but they denied the club was operating illegally.

"They (the city's lawyers) are wrong, absolutely wrong," attorney Tom Royce said outside court. "Charges of irresponsibility are inappropriate."

City officials did not offer an explanation of why a previous order to shut the club down was not enforced. Lynch issued the order in July.

Police Commissioner Terry Hillard said his department was not aware of the order, though police had been called dozens of times to deal with disturbances outside the club.

"There was nothing the city could have done," said Mara Georges, the city's top lawyer, blaming the club's owners. "If the city put a padlock on the doors they would have cut the lock. These people were intent on breaking the law."

Hundreds of club-goers packed the dance floor early Monday when security guards used either pepper spray or Mace to break up a fight, setting off a panicked flight down a steep, narrow stairway to the exit.

An avalanche of bodies blocked the doors, crushing victims underneath. The victims, most of them in their 20s and 30s, died from cardiac arrest.

Royce said he would argue that the previous court orders banning occupancy referred only to so-called skyboxes that had been added above the dance floor, and not to the club itself.

Meanwhile, the first lawsuit was filed on behalf of victims and more litigation is expected. James Montgomery, the Chicago law partner of attorney Johnnie Cochran, said the firm would file suit on behalf of several victims' families.