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Stampede at Illegal Nightclub Leaves 21 Dead, Dozens Injured

By Eric Slater


Security guards using pepper spray to break up a fight in an illegal nightclub early Monday triggered a stampede that killed 21 people and injured more than 50, police said, as hundreds of club-goers tried to flee the bar only to be trapped in an overcrowded stairwell.

Most of the dead appeared to have been asphyxiated and some suffered heart attacks, officials said, as they were trampled in the stairway leading from the second floor dance area of Club Epitome, a high-priced bar and restaurant that caters primarily to black patrons.

Witnesses said a second-floor door was locked and chained, and fire officials said other doors were illegally locked or blocked. The throng tried to flee down the stairwell that led to the front door of the club, known as E2. The second floor -- where the patrons had been dancing -- was ordered closed in the summer for repeated safety violations.

By the time firefighters arrived, the lone exit was clogged with the injured and the dead, and bodies were piled against the double-paned glass.

“It was chaos,” one patron said a few hours after the disaster. “It was madness.”

The stampede is reminiscent of other incidents in which large numbers of people were trampled to death. In 1991, nine people in New York were crushed to death in a gymnasium stairwell while awaiting a celebrity basketball game. In 1979, 11 died in Cincinnati as a crowd rushed for the best seats at a concert by The Who.

“Chicago is a city in deep mourning today,” said Police Supt. Terry Hilliard. “While these deaths were sudden our investigation will not be over quickly. We will get to the bottom of this.”

City building codes limited the number of people in the first-floor restaurant to 327. Estimates of the number of patrons in the club ranged from 500 to as high as 1,500.