Friday marks 20 years since E2 nightclub’s deadly crowd crush in South Loop, one of worst in Chicago history – Chicago Tribune newstrendslive

Torriana Cox doesn’t remember much about her mother. After all, she was only 3 and her brother barely a few weeks old on the day when their mother, Eazay Rogers, became one of 21 people who died in a crowd crush in the E2 nightclub 20 years ago.

What Cox, now 23 years old, does remember is that her mother was a family-oriented person with a loving soul, particularly encapsulated by one memory: the time she got chewing gum stuck in her hair and Rogers tried to get it out with peanut butter.

But growing up without her mother hasn’t been easy, said Cox, who recently graduated from Western Michigan University. “All the accomplishments that I’ve had, I couldn’t really celebrate that with my mom,” she told the Tribune. “So it’s just been difficult. Even with personal stuff — you want to talk to your mom, but I can’t because I don’t have that.”

At least 36 children like Cox lost a parent that cold February night during the worst nightclub catastrophe in Chicago history.

In the early morning hours of Feb. 17, 2003, a security guard deployed pepper spray to break up a fight inside the second-floor E2 nightclub, which sent patrons in a panicked rush toward the front stairwell. As people fell facedown on the stairs, more patrons climbed and fell atop them. Some were fatally crushed or asphyxiated, and 50 others were injured. Witnesses said the stack of bodies reached nearly 6 feet high.

Before chaos erupted at 2:25 a.m., over 1,100 people had crowded inside the South Loop nightclub, which was only capable of holding 240 individuals. Authorities later determined there weren’t enough exits for the size of the crowd. But there was also no record that the city had issued an occupancy placard for the establishment.

Like fellow patrons, Rogers was looking for a night of fun and a break from a busy life when their lives were cut short. The 21-year-old mother of two was getting ready to go to nursing school.

“She just went out one night, just to have a good time, and it cost her her life,” Rogers’ younger sister Angel Rogers, now 39, told the Tribune. “When she passed away, a part of me passed away, too.”

Ever since the 2003 tragedy, survivors, victims and their families have grappled with countless questions, seen little to no accountability and wondered if the fatalities could have been prevented.

The last few years have seen tragic history repeat itself across the country and the world. On Nov. 5, 2021, 10 people died and scores of people were injured in a crowd surge during a Travis Scott performance at the Astroworld Festival in Houston. On Oct. 30, 2022, a Halloween party crowd surged into a narrow alley in a nightlife district in Seoul, South Korea, killing 153 people and injuring countless others.

In Chicago, prosecutors were unable to make charges of involuntary manslaughter stick against the owners of E2, Calvin Hollins Jr. and Dwain Kyles. Hollins, his son Calvin Hollins III and party promoter Marco Flores were acquitted in 2007 of involuntary manslaughter charges when a judge ruled that the city failed to prove the men had acted recklessly. Prosecutors dropped the charge against Kyles shortly after.

Hollins Jr. and Kyles were instead convicted of criminal contempt for violating a judge’s July 2002 order to close the second-floor nightclub for building code violations in the months before disaster struck. In 2015, the co-owners made a deal with city attorneys that allowed them to avoid prison time and they instead were sentenced to two years of probation and ordered to serve 500 hours of community service.

“We felt like the city was responsible for their deaths, but the city tried to just throw it off and blame it on the nightclub owners,” Angel Rogers said. “The city was at fault too, because the city knew that this place was supposed to be closed.”

Amishoov Blackwell, 50, of Portage, Indiana, and three friends — two men and a woman — had originally planned to go to a reggae club in Wrigleyville called the Wild Hare, Blackwell recalled to the Tribune on Wednesday. But E2, which was formerly known as the Clique, hadn’t been open that long and sounded fun, too. So off they went on that bitterly cold evening.

“It was just a night out, that’s the craziest part,” Blackwell said.

While Blackwell and one of his friends waited to check his black mink coat, they began getting “bombarded” by frantic crowds hurrying from the dance floor and stumbling down the stairs, coughing and crying. The situation escalated in an instant, he said, when Blackwell and his friend turned around and headed for the stairs. Halfway through, everyone became so closely packed, no one could move.

“I felt people grabbing on my legs like, ‘Please, help me up!’ But I couldn’t move,” Blackwell said. A man next to him could not breathe. “I told him: ‘You’re going to be all right.’ I said: ‘Just hold my hand — we’re gonna get out of here.’ He squeezed my hand really, really tight.”

The man then told Blackwell: “If I don’t make it, tell my mom I love her.” Blackwell felt the pressure releasing on his hand. “He just let go. That’s when I got scared,” he said, adding he never found out the man’s name but knew he had died.

When firefighters pulled Blackwell to safety, he saw the carnage firsthand. “They walked us back through the dance floor. It was like a triage. Bodies were laying everywhere.” As people knelt near their loved ones, he could hear them say: “Please, please wake up.” Others were covered with white sheets.

Chicago Fire Department spokesman Larry Langford was working for the city’s Office of Emergency Management and Communications that day and was in charge of putting together a timeline, with 911 calls and radio traffic.

The public wanted to know what happened, and controversies swirled, Langford said.

“Part of the issue was over the size of the stairway that led back to the door,“ Langford recalled. The stairwell was not wide enough, according to the city’s Department of Buildings.

“For that number of people occupying it, it was not right,” Langford said. “The stairs weren’t wide enough. People fell and started falling on top of the people that fell. It just built up.”

After the tragedy, the Rev. Jesse Jackson asked whether emergency personnel, knowing that young Black people patronized E2, arrived “in riot mode or rescue mode.” That notion stuck: U.S. Rep. Bobby Rush, who was a character witness for Kyles, would later say that, “Rather than calling for rescue personnel, the city called for riot personnel. Something’s wrong with that.”

The victims’ families were unsuccessful in their attempts to sue the city for what they said was a botched rescue effort and a failure to enforce building code violations. An appellate court ruled in 2008 that the city was immune from liability.

Paul Wertheimer, principal and founder of Crowd Management Strategies — a Los Angeles-based crowd safety consulting service — lived and worked in Chicago until 2005, and was retained as an expert by one of the victims’ attorneys in a lawsuit against the city.

“Why was there no emergency plan? Why was the city allowing this club to be in business when it was supposed to be closed, or arguably closed? That was a big contention,” Wertheimer told the Tribune on Thursday. “(It was) a totally preventable disaster. The clubgoers were the victims, they weren’t the cause of the tragedy.”

Mary Carwell, right, with her granddaughter Laneisha Unique Crawford, 24, whose mother, Demetrica Carwell, was killed in the E2 nightclub disaster 20 years ago.

On Feb. 17, 2003, Mary Carwell was babysitting her granddaughter Laneisha for her 23-year-old daughter, Demetrica. The toddler was having a hard time with her mother gone. Carwell called Demetrica, who promised an inconsolable Laneisha she’d bring back some ice cream and candy.

“She was telling her she loved her,’’ Carwell told the Tribune. Demetrica then had to go because the friend group she was with had finally made it inside E2 after waiting in a long line. “I told her to be careful and I love her, and that was the last words we said to each other.”

A few hours later, Carwell heard the news about the club, and after calling her daughter several times with no answer, she and a friend drove to hospitals to try and find her. After running into the Rev. Jackson at Mercy Hospital, they went with him to another location, where detectives, nurses and a priest talked with Carwell.

Once she learned her daughter was dead, she said, “I started crying … knocking stuff off the desk — they had to hold me down.”

About a week after the tragedy, as Carwell, her granddaughter and her sister drove to Demetrica’s funeral, they almost got into a crash on the icy, slippery roads.

“Another car almost slid into us,” Carwell said. As she glanced over at Laneisha, who was in a car seat, the toddler said: “Grandma, Grandma, she’s watching over us! I see my momma! She has those two things on her back!”

Carwell explained the toddler meant wings.

“Me and my sister started sobbing. People just don’t know how hard it is,” she said.

An attorney who represented many victims and their families, Melvin Brooks said it’s difficult to know how much progress has been made in Chicago in terms of crowd management and safety, if any.

“It’s hard to know where we stand today in terms of how diligent the city is,” he said. “One would hope — after having had a circumstance where 21 individuals died as a result of their failure to actually enforce the rules and the law — that they’re doing a better job. It’s just hard to say one way or the other.”

In the aftermath of the tragedy, Wertheimer said, the city’s response was lacking as it failed to take the necessary long-term steps through legislation to prevent a recurrence.

“Yeah, they took action against pepper spray being used inside,” Wertheimer said. “But the issue of crowd safety and crowd management was ignored, and (the issue of) proper training was ignored.”

Most people are not trained or prepared to deal with a stampede or crowd crush, Wertheimer said. There are ways that individuals can look out for their safety — such as checking for all nearby exits and calling authorities such as fire officials when a locale is overcrowded, he said. But the ultimate responsibility, he added, lies with event organizers and the city.

“There are certain things you could do, but the main responsibility of making events safe belong to the people who run the events and approve them,” he said. “Just like Astroworld — what are you gonna do in a crowd of 10,000? What can you do? Not a lot. You can do certain things, but your safety is beyond your control. So, the city of Chicago failed Chicagoans and the club owners failed Chicagoans.”

Brooks reflected on the tragedy after years of litigation on behalf of victims and their families. Most wrongful death and personal injury cases related to the tragedy were eventually settled with the club owners and Clear Channel Communications, the company that employed the disc jockey who worked the party at E2.

“It’s been 20 years. From my perspective, I’ve had a chance to actually watch some of the children of the deceased grow up and become productive,” he said. “And (I) know that we cannot bring their parents back.”

“I will say that, to some extent, we were able to at least address some issues such that I don’t think you’ll ever find a circumstance where security guards or any other folks will be permitted to disperse pepper spray in environments such as that,” he continued. “I think the city, at least after E2, was put on notice that they needed to do a much better job in terms of code enforcement.”

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