Author(s): Lisa Nadile. Published on March 1, 2008.


Security cameras screenshot: Camera 1: Entrance door.  Camera 2: Street entrance at door.  Camera 3: Small lobby at the top of stairs where the most deaths occured.  Camera 4: Front door exterior and sidewalk. (Courtesy of Crowdsafe® Library)

E2
On the fifth anniversary of the E2 crowd crush and The Station nightclub fire, NFPA returns to an important moment in codes and standards history.

NFPA Journal®, March/April 2008

By Lisa Nadile

Five years ago, 21 people died in a crowd crush at the E2 nightclub in Chicago, Illinois. The tragedy, combined with The Station nightclub fire in West Warwick, Rhode Island, which killed 100 people, led to a public hearing at an emergency meeting of NFPA’s Technical Committee on Assembly Occupancies, and led to important revisions of NFPA 101®, Life Safety Code®, and NFPA 5000®, Building Construction and Safety Code®. The result was sweeping changes to codes and standards in Rhode Island, Massachusetts, and several other states, and to renewed diligence on the part of fire- and life-safety professionals throughout the United States.

 


 A closer look at the stampede.

   

Tragedy at E2
The Epitome Restaurant and its upstairs dance club, the E2, were two popular places to be in Chicago on Sunday nights. There was usually a trendy DJ, and on the night of February 17, 2003, it was also Ladies’ Night, when the cover charge for women was waived for a few hours. Although the nightclub had a history of law enforcement problems, requiring the assistance of the police 80 times in the previous two years,1 it attracted a clientele of all ages and across all economic strata.

What the clientele didn’t know was that the second floor of the 2347 South Michigan Avenue building had been under Cook County Court injunction since July 19, 2002, for 11 structural and fire code violations and was prohibited from doing business.2

Even though E2 was supposed to be closed to the public, occupancy that night topped 1,100 people, according to police reports. Legal occupancy for the second floor before the injunction is under dispute. A report made by an Independent Review Panel appointed by Chicago Mayor Richard Daley states that an occupancy card for 327 was displayed on the first floor.3 There was no occupancy placard displayed on the second floor, the Panel observed.

The club was very busy, and managers and security personnel struggled to maintain control of the doors. At one point, the manager asked that the two back exit doors be locked to stop staff from freelancing cover charges and letting people inside, but this decision was supposedly reversed,4 although witnesses say at least one door was indeed locked at the time of the incident.5 One of those back exits was partially blocked by bags of linen, says Paul Wertheimer, a founder of Crowd Management Strategies in Los Angeles, California, who investigated the club.

At about 2:00 a.m., a fight broke out on the dance floor, and in-house security was called to break up the dispute. One bouncer sprayed an irritant, which was drawn into the overhead fans and distributed across a wide area.6

People began moving to the exit that opened out on South Michigan Avenue, the entrance they were most familiar with and the one through which they entered the building. Because of the location of the front entrance and of the spray, the crowd was also moving away from the two other marked exit doors, located behind the DJ stand and beyond the rest rooms, respectively.  “This wasn’t blind panic. They were trying to move to where they could breathe,” says Wertheimer.

When security tried to redirect part of the crowd to the other exits, some obeyed, but others angrily countered the instructions, insisting that security was lying and that the back doors were locked.7

To leave the club through the South Michigan Avenue exit, patrons had to exit through double doors into a small lobby, then go down a stairwell. According to Wertheimer, the result was a small room at the top of the stairwell measuring about 11 feet by 11 feet (3.5 meters by 3.5 meters). The stairwell had 18 steps, one of which was a large landing about halfway down, and ended at a 4-foot by 5-foot (1-meter by 1.5-meter) vestibule with a doorway about 60 inches (1.5 meters) wide. Handrails in the stairwell further reduced the size of the area, says Wertheimer.

As people grew more anxious, they started to push each other and began packing the lobby and stairwell. Someone eventually fell, and the occupants began to pile on top of one another in an attempt to escape. The majority of the deaths occurred at the top of the stairs in the small lobby outside the dance floor, Wertheimer says.

The scene at the front door facing first responders was similar to the one facing those at The Station nightclub fire three nights later, to that found by the responders at the Cocoanut Grove fire in 1942, and to those facing first responders in many other disasters involving a crowd crush. It didn’t matter that there wasn’t a fire; the space available to exit the building was insufficient to handle the crowd.

One member of security who said he was over 6 feet (1.8 meters) tall described the pile of bodies in the front door as higher than he was.8 One patron said in an interview that she was trapped in the doorway of the club for more than 45 minutes.9 In addition to the 21 deaths, 57 people were injured.

The club’s co-owner, promoter, and floor manager were acquitted of manslaughter at trial in March 2007. The second co-owner awaits trial.

NFPA’s response
On March 20, 2003, NFPA called an emergency meeting of the Technical Committee on Assembly Occupancies to discuss what changes and additions, if any, should be made to NFPA 101 and NFPA 5000 in light of the two nightclub tragedies. In July 2003, the technical committee again met and passed six Tentative Interim Amendments (TIAs), which are technical changes of an emergency nature requiring prompt action. Four of these TIAs affected NFPA 101, and two affected NFPA 5000.

The TIAs, which went into effect August 14, 2003, required fire sprinklers to be installed in new assembly occupancies, such as bars, dance halls, discotheques, and nightclubs; in assembly occupancies with festival seating; and in existing assembly facilities that accommodate more than 100. These changes were made in Sections 12.3.5.1 and 13.3.5.1 of NFPA 101 and Section 16.3.5.1.1 of NFPA 5000, respectively.

Sections 12.7.1 and 13.7.1 of NFPA 101 were also revised to require that building owners inspect exits to ensure that they are free of obstructions and functioning before opening to the public. This change required owners to maintain records of each inspection. Sections 12.7.6.1 and 13.7.6.1 of NFPA 101 were also changed to require the presence of at least one trained crowd manager for all gatherings, except religious services. For larger gatherings, additional crowd managers were required at a ratio of 1:250.

Another TIA prohibited festival seating for crowds of more than 250 unless a life-safety evaluation approved by the authority having jurisdiction was performed. Festival seating is a form of audience accommodation in which no seating, other than a floor or ground surface, is provided. These revisions were made in Sections 12.2.5.4.1 and 13.2.5.4.1 of NFPA 101, as well as Section 16.2.5.4.1 of NFPA 5000.

“The committee really had E2 in mind when passing the TIAs regarding inspection of exits, crowd managers, and festival seating,” says Gary Keith, NFPA’s vice-president of field operations and education.

Rhode Island immediately adopted a form of the TIAs and soon afterward passed legislation removing the grandfathering that had allowed The Station to operate without sprinklers. The code changes embodied by the TIAs went through NFPA’s complete codes and standards revision process and were incorporated into the 2006 editions of NFPA 101 and NFPA 5000.

Six months after the E2 tragedy, Illinois passed a law banning the use of spray irritants in nightclubs.10  In the year after the disaster, Chicago fire inspectors began inspecting nightclubs at night and on weekends, according to Wertheimer. Previously, they were inspected only during the day. Spot inspections increased, as well, he adds.

Endnotes

  1. “In Chicago, Jesse on the Spot,” Time, Time Warner, Inc. (New York, New York), March 3, 2003.
  2. “Club were 21 died in stampede slipped by inspectors,” Chicago Tribune (Chicago, Illinois),73February 19, 2003.
  3. Independent Review Panel of Building Safety Enforcement Powers, Final Report, (Chicago, Illinois) July 2, 2003.
  4. “Didn’t call for Mace, deejay says: Fighting common at E2, court is told,” Chicago Tribune (Chicago, Illinois), January 24, 2007.
  5. “Firefighter broke open rear exit, E2 patron says,” Chicago Tribune (Chicago, Illinois), January 20, 2007.
  6. Ibid.
  7. “Didn’t call for Mace, deejay says: Fighting common at E2, court is told,” Chicago Tribune (Chicago, Illinois), January 24, 2007.
  8. “Bouncer says exits locked: Told bosses to keep them open, E2 guard testifies,” Chicago Tribune (Chicago Illinois), January 19, 2007.
  9. “Decoding Disaster,” Discover Times channel, Discovery Communications, LLC, January 2006.
  10. National Briefing Midwest: Illinois: “Ban on Pepper Spray and Mace at Clubs,” The New York Times (New York, New York), August 21, 2003.

Lisa Nadile is associate editor of NFPA Journal.