- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 18, 2003

CHICAGO (AP) The nightclub where 21 persons were killed and 55 injured early yesterday in a stampede was operating in violation of a months-old court order meant to close it down, authorities said.
"The owner knows … that he is not to open that second-floor facility," Fire Commissioner James Joyce said.
The nightclub has been cited for repeated building-code violations and the city has been sparring in court with the owners of the nightclub since July 2002, officials said.
An attorney for the city of Chicago said officials plan to go to court as early as today to seek criminal-contempt charges against the owner.
Victims were trampled or smothered when hundreds of screaming guests rushed the exits of the crowded Epitome nightclub. Some witnesses said the deadly stampede was caused when security guards at the club used Mace or pepper spray to break up a fight.
Firefighters had to use sledgehammers and pry bars to open locked or blocked doors that prevented some clubgoers from fleeing, Commissioner Joyce said.
"There are people trying to get out that could not get out," he said. "Locked and blocked doors are a contributing factor. We can't explain how management or ownership would allow that."
All but one of the exits were locked or blocked, in some cases by bags of laundry from the first-floor restaurant. The locked doors are a fire-code violation, Commissioner Joyce said.
"Everybody smashed; people crying, couldn't breathe," said clubgoer Reggie Clark. "Two ladies next to me died. A guy under me passed out."
Police Commissioner Terry Hillard said investigators are trying to sort out conflicting stories about what caused the panic, and were retrieving a video from inside the club.
"We will get to the bottom of this," Commissioner Hillard said. "Right now, our investigation is at full tilt."
Authorities initially reported as many as 1,500 people were in the nightclub, but Commissioner Joyce said he could not confirm that number.
"It appears a disturbance from within led to a mass chaos, where people headed for the door. Most of the fatalities appear to have been crushed or had injuries due to suffocation," said police Officer Ozzie Rodriguez.
Cory Thomas, 33, went to the club to pick up two friends. As he waited outside, he saw people inside the club start to back up against the glass front door.
"You could see a mound of people. People were stacking on top of each other, screaming and gagging, I guess from the pepper spray. The door got blocked because there were too many people stacked up against it," he said.
Kristy Mitchell, 22, was one of the people trampled on the stairway.
"People were stomping my legs," she said. "When they pulled me up, I was dizzy and I couldn't breathe."
Amishoov Blackwell, 30, was checking his coat on the second floor when people started rushing past him. The flow of the crowd pushed him back down the stairs and he fell on top of several people, he said. He was trapped on top of the others until firefighters rescued him about 30 minutes later.
"It wasn't nothing but two girls fighting," Mr. Blackwell said. "Why'd they have to spray Mace?"

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