CHICAGO, Feb. 17 (UPI) -- Fire officials said a court order issued months ago should have closed the nightclub where 21 people were killed in a chaotic stampede Monday.
"The owner knows damn well that he is not to open that second-floor facility," said Fire Commissioner James Joyce.
The E2 nightclub had been cited for repeated building code violations, and city attorneys planned to seek criminal charges against the owner.
WLS-TV said the club was cited for insufficient emergency exits last summer. Inspectors visited the Epitome Restaurant on the first floor in October but did not inspect the second-floor nightclub because it was ordered closed.
The restaurant had a capacity of 327, but there was no occupancy placard in the upstairs club where officials said as many as 1,500 were crowded in early on the Presidents' Day holiday morning.
They had paid a $20 cover charge for an open dance event with a disc jockey.
Joyce said blocked emergency doors trapped victims in the rear stairway.
Four young men were killed at the padlocked rear door near the kitchen, and two side doors that led to exits were blocked or locked. Firefighters used sledgehammers and pry bars to open the doors.
"Loss of life would have been a lot less had the doors been open," Joyce told a news briefing. "We found locked doors. There were doors blocked by what appears to be storage ... and bags of laundry. These would be violations."
Grim-faced firefighters pulled most of the bodies from the 4-foot-wide, 40-stair entrance of the popular nightclub on South Michigan Avenue after hundreds of club-goers panicked before dawn when security officers sprayed Mace or pepper spray to break up a fight among several women.
At least 21 people died and 55 were injured, some critically. Three men were pronounced dead at the scene and 18 other people died at hospitals. The cause of death was cardiac arrest or suffocation apparently from crushing, officials said.
"Chicago is a city of deep mourning today. This is a time of overwhelming sadness and heartbreak for all of us," said Police Superintendent Terry Hillard. "These were Chicagoans who went to a nightclub to have a good time, and they lost their lives tragically."
Hillard said hundreds saw the melee, and the police superintendent asked witnesses to call police detectives conducting a preliminary death investigation of 21 individuals.
"There is conflicting information on who sprayed the Mace and how it was sprayed," he said. "We need the individuals who are out there to come forward. It is a puzzle we have to put together."
Mayor Richard M. Daley, whose mother died on Sunday, called the loss of life senseless.
"This was a terrible tragedy that never should have occurred," said Daley. "It will be fully investigated, and we will take whatever steps are necessary to make sure that nothing like this ever happens again."
The initial 9-1-1 call "of a pregnant woman down" came into the city's emergency center at 2:11 a.m., said Joyce. Fifteen ambulances, more than 30 paramedics and 2 EMH teams responded as the severity of the incident became apparent.
Witnesses said the incident began when club security rushed in to break up a fight among two or three women. Witnesses said coughing and choking patrons panicked, stampeding down front and rear stairways trying to escape irritating pepper gas or Mace. The stairways filled with bodies as people fell, crushing dozens beneath them.
"It's frightening that we only had one way out," said one young woman. "It was like the Titanic in a nightclub," said another describing the nightmare.
More than 65 people sought treatment at 11 hospitals with injuries ranging from broken ribs and limbs to minor cuts, scrapes and bruises.
The nightclub was the scene of several past shootings and had requested more police protection after about 80 incidents since 2000 ranging from battery to simple battery.
Former heavyweight boxing champion Mike Tyson was accused of assaulting a 25-year-old beautician in the building in 1996 when a club called the Clique operated at the location. Tyson was not charged in that incident.