Chicago. An apparent fight between two women at a nightclub on Chicago’s South Side started a panic that resulted in the deaths of at least 21 people, but many people in Chicago are asking if the panic was escalated by fears of a possible terror attack and the nation’s heightened terror alert.
Although witnesses said the fight continued to escalate even after security at the club allegedly used pepper spray and mace to try to break it up, other witnesses said someone at the club started yelling “Bin Laden. Bin Laden” on the microphone apparently as a joke to lighten the tense mood.
Other sources said that the phrase “terrorist attack” was also yelled out as the crowd’s fears only increased with the spread of the pepper spray or mace gases.
When the melee was over, 21 people were confirmed dead in the tragedy at the Epitome Restaurant/E2 Night Club, at 24th and Michigan Avenue in a predominantly African American community on Chicago’s South Side. Area hospitals reported treating at least 50 other people for everything from critical injuries to asthma-like symptoms.
In statements to the news media, the owner of the nightclub said: “I will never be able to prove it, but the fact of the matter is what really caused the panic was after the pepper spray, somebody started yelling this is a ‘terrorist attack’ and ‘this is poisonous gas.’ … About 200 or 300 people tried to fit through one door,” he said. “When people see the tape–you are talking about mass hysteria. It was horrible. When I got there, there were bodies lying in my place,” Kyles said, breaking down.
The melee marks one of the nation’s deadliest stampedes. In December 1991, nine young people were crushed to death in a gymnasium stairwell while awaiting a celebrity basketball game in New York. In December 1979, 11 people were killed in Cincinnati in a crush to get into a concert by The Who.
Police said they hoped to sort through conflicting reports and possibly review a video taken in the club that might explain the exact causes of the raucous that turned deadly. Many of those killed were crushed or smothered to death as they tried to flee in panic.
Witnesses quoted on local Chicago radio and TV stations said someone on a loudspeaker or microphone was yelling “Bin Laden. Bin Laden” as the fight escalated possibly provoking more fear among the panic-stricken club patrons. Police are checking into the stories.
Atmosphere of Terror
The panic deaths come in an atmosphere where Americans have been warned for more than two weeks to expect a possible terrorism attacked associated with the recent Muslim Haj. Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge had elevated the nation’s terrorism alert status from yellow to orange, but promised that the status would be reduced. White House officials said that the attacks might be aimed at so-called “soft” targets, or common or non-military locations like shopping malls, subways and possibly night clubs.
His office also had cautioned Americans to stock up on water, food supplies, and to buy plastic and duct tape that was to have been used to “seal” a room in homes in the event of a chemical or biological attack.
Although the call to purchase duct tape, a special kind of heavy duty tape, and plastic was ridiculed, many Americans fearing an attack went to great lengths, often to the extreme. Many American actually covered their homes, their windows and rooms in plastic and duct tape.
Ridge and other officials conceded later that the plastic and duct tape would not prevent deaths in the event of a chemical or biological attack. But they stuck to their claims that Americans should be vigilant and observant in case of gas or chemical attacks.
The claims that someone yelled “Bin Laden. Bin Laden” during the night club party may have provoked party-goers’ fears.
Chicago police said they are checking into the reports of the use of pepper spray and mace, and also into the other allegations. But no official report has been released.
“We will get to the bottom of this,” said Chicago Police Supt. Terry Hillard said. “Right now our investigation is at full tilt.”
There were reportedly more than 1,500 people in the two-story nightclub when the spray was allegedly released sometime after 2 a.m. early Monday morning. Reportedly, the city’s building department had allegedly denied a use permit for the club space in the building.
Witnesses described a frenzied scene of some people trying to climb through the ceiling, while others were trampled in the frantic rush for the front door, their faces and bodies flattened against the glass.
“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, told the Associated Press that he 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. “I saw them taking out a pregnant woman,” Thomas said. “She was in bad shape. I saw at least 10 lifeless bodies.”
The building has a downstairs restaurant called Epitome, and an upstairs area often used as a night club called E2.
RAY HANANIA is a Palestinian American author and veteran award winning journalist. Based on Chicago, he is a columnist on Middle East affairs for Creators Syndicate. He can be reached at www.hanania.com