February 17, 2003: The E2 Nightclub Stampede


On February 17, 2003, a stampede broke out at the E2 Nightclub on Michigan Avenue in Chicago. 21 people died and more than 50 people were injured.

Panic ensued when a security guard used pepper spray to break up a fight. Not knowing the source of the smell, people began to panic and evacuate, causing a deadly pile-up.

The club's owners were convicted of criminal contempt because of their failure to keep the club up to code. They spent 2 years in prison for the deaths of 21 people.


More than 1,100 people were in the space, which was meant to hold 240 people. (2)

Sometime around 2am, a fight broke out at the club. A security guard, in attempt to break it up, used pepper spray on the brawlers and kicked them out of the club. But, due to the fumes, people began to vomit or pass out or start to feel extremely ill. (1)

People began panicking. They didn't know where the fumes were coming from or why people were starting to feel sick and pass out. Witnesses say they believed the club was gassed and thought it may be a terrorist attack at the hands of Osama bin Laden. The more people started to think up what might be the cause, the more they panicked. So they tried to leave. (1)

At 2:24am, emergency dispatchers were called, as a pregnant woman had been sprayed, and another call came through saying the same for an asthmatic woman. By the time emergency services arrived at 2:28am, they became witnesses to the horror. (2)

Unfortunately and devastatingly, there was only one way to get out, and it involved an extremely steep staircase and doors that opened inward, which was a fire code violation. (1)

And so the large crowd of nearly 1,000 people all tried to evacuate. But, given the panic, the steep stairs and the volume of people, patrons began falling or being knocked down the stairs. And once they were down, they were pinned down by the crowd of people who were still trying to leave. A pile of bodies reached 6 feet high as people continued to try to leave, climbing over top of the bodies if necessary. (1)

A security guard recalls that people at the top of the stairs were laughing at the commotion, not realizing that in the pile of people were over 20 dead bodies. (1)

In the days following, liability was diverted. People were trying to figure out why such an unsafe club would even be opened. People also began to believe that the situation was exacerbated by the police. Reverend Jesse Jackson asked if the police arrived "in riot mode or rescue mode", noting that young black people were the most common patrons of the club. (2)

But it quickly became evident that the police were not expecting a riot, and came without riot gear or guns drawn. They were just trying, desperately, to help. Cameras show the police reaching into the pile of people, tugging on outstretched hands of the trampled victims. (2)

They were frantically trying to help people who were being crushed alive by their fellow club-goers. They blocked people who were trying to re-enter the chaos to find their trapped friends and family. They didn't exacerbate the situation - the situation was exacerbated because of the failure to keep the building up to code.


The owners of the club, Dwain Kyles and Calvin Hollins, were guilty of over 11 building code violations, including overcrowding and faulty exit lighting. The police had been called to the location 80+ times just in the past 2 years. (1)

In 2002, a year before the tragedy, the owners had been ordered to shut down the second-floor club. But, their attorneys argued that the direction was unclear, and they thought they only had to shut down a certain VIP section of the floor.

Security guard Samuel Bone testified that he was trained to use pepper spray after the prosecution argued that the security team was not trained to handle rowdy crowds. He said he used it to disband a brawl of over 15 people, and had learned how to use the pepper spray from a non-profit group.

Kyles and Hollins were charged with involuntary manslaughter, for which they were acquitted in 2009. Ultimately, they were found guilty of criminal contempt for violating the orders to close the 2nd floor. After that, their 1st floor restaurant and 2nd floor club were closed permanently, and they were given 2 year jail sentences each.

In 2011, the ruling was overturned when a judge agreed that the direction to close down the club was ambiguous and unclear, but that ruling was overturned and the original ruling was reinstated in 2013 when another judge ruled that the direction was clear and concise. (1)

Even now, after 17 years, there has never been any type of formal memorial to remember and honor these many victims of a needless, senseless tragedy.

Families were broken up, loved ones were lost, but the survivors and families of the victims are losing steam in the fight to memorialize the event. It has become a fading memory. (3)

The club's owners have moved on after receiving, at best, a slap on the wrist for their involvement in the chaos. No organizations have shown interest in funding a memorial and no politicians have spoken about it. (3)

On February 17, 2018, survivors and family gathered for breakfast like they've done annually since the tragedy, but fewer and fewer people have shown each year. 2018 was the 15 year anniversary, but the breakfast had the smallest turnout yet, and the vigil that normally sits outside the club on the anniversary was nowhere to be found. (3)

Many people believe that the willingness to forget this event has to do with the fact that most of the club's patrons were young, black people. Chicago has memorials all over the city for drownings, fires and crashes... But for some reason, the victims of this event have not been given any sort of memorization. (3)

3 days after the stampede, a fire broke out at another nightclub in Rhode Island, killing 100 people - their names are all written in a large memorial. (3) This is not to say that victims of other horrific accidents should not have memorials, but it is difficult to understand why 21 young people who died because of an unfortunate misunderstanding and a criminal neglect of building codes will fade out of memory while others do not.

Just writing or reading about this tragedy is not in the same ballpark as putting each and every name of each and every victim on a statue or planting trees in their honor, but it is at least a very small way to remember these people and the families who lost their dear loved ones 17 years ago today.


1. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2003_E2_nightclub_stampede

2. https://www.chicagotribune.com/opinion/editorials/ct-e2-nightclub-stampede-deaths-edit-1130-20151127-story.html

3. https://chicagocrusader.com/on-the-15th-anniversary-still-no-memorial-for-e2-nightclub-victims/

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