Monday, February 17, 2003
by Lenka Reznicek [permalink] 
Duck (Tape) and Cover, Part 1: The Hidden Cost of Fear

Shades of the fateful Cincinnati Who concert in 1979 that claimed the lives of 11 fans, crushed when concertgoers tried to storm the sold-out show:

At roughly 2:00am today, over 20 people were killed - and many more seriously injured - when over 1500 patrons of a near Southside Chicago nightclub crushed to escape what many undoubtedly thought was a terrorist gas attack. Details of the case are not yet clear, but news reports say that shortly before the deadly stampede began, someone had sprayed Mace or pepper gas inside the club. Like many nightclubs, Epitome at 24th and Michigan had only one main point of entry and exit, and a rear door was reportedly sealed shut to prevent unauthorized - unpaid - partygoers from getting inside.
From CNN today: "Everybody smashed; people crying, couldn't breathe," patron Reggie Clark told The Associated Press. "Two ladies next to me died. A guy under me passed out." Cory Thomas, 33, said he was waiting outside the club with friends when the stampede occurred, according to the AP. "You could see a mound of people," Thomas told the AP. "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. "I saw them taking out a pregnant woman," Thomas said. "She was in bad shape. I saw at least 10 lifeless bodies."

Some club patrons opened doors and went into broom closets. Apparently there was only one way down from the second level to the first, contributing to the problem. Firefighters had to pull trampled bodies out of stairwells. "They're stuck in the hallway. They literally can't move," a panicked patron told police.
You can understand the point that club owners don't want to lose income by allowing freeloaders, but in today's heightened atmosphere of terror, measures for patron safety have to be given priority - and enforced. When I first heard this story today I was under the impression someone at the club released the irritant gas as a very poorly-chosen prank; however, accounts seem to be saying that the pepper spray was released following a routine fight - not an unexpected occurrence at a crowded urban nightclub.

You can imagine the sequence of events that must have unfolded: the room is dark, pulsing with thumping bass and flashing lights, nearly everyone under the influence of some intoxicant - whether alcohol, drugs, or the music itself. You can barely discern what the person next to you is saying, much less what's happening on the other side of the building.

Your reality and judgment are altered and blurred. Shouts, screams. Suddenly, searing pain - your eyes start to water and burn, your throat closes up. You're choking. Adrenaline surges through your system, the crowd begins to panic, and pure animal self-preservation takes over. What is your first thought? This morning, it wasn't "Oh, man, somebody blew some Mace in here! Get down on the floor." Instead, it was "We're being gassed! We're all going to die in here, like those people in Bali and Moscow!" UK's Ananova says two young women started the fight that led to the fatal melee:
"Amishoov Blackwell, 30, was handing in a coat on the second floor when people started rushing past. The flow pushed him back down the stairs and he fell on top of several people. Mr Blackwell, who was rescued by firefighters 30 minutes later, said: "It wasn't nothing but two girls fighting. Why'd they have to spray Mace?"
With the terror clock tick-tocking in the back of everyone's mind, what would normally been just an unpleasant disruption of the night's activity turned twenty times deadly as the Epitome patrons' collective backlog of fear exploded over a simple blast of pepper spray.