20 years after E2 nightclub tragedy left 21 dead, what has changed?

Karen Jordan Image
Thursday, February 16, 2023
20 years after E2 nightclub tragedy, what has changed?
On February 17, 2003, an altercation at the over-filled E2 nightclub led to a stampede that killed 21 people. 20 years later, what has changed?

CHICAGO (WLS) -- On President's Day weekend 2003, more than 1,000 people packed the E2 nightclub to enjoy the long weekend on a night that would end in tragedy.

In the early morning hours of February 17, the club was more than quadruple its capacity; it was only designed to hold 240 people.

When a security guard used pepper spray to break up a fight, hundreds of patrons rushed to the only exit, creating a stampede that jammed the stairwell. Twenty-one people died.

"You could not pull these people apart. They were so intertwined and stuck together," recalled Ken Herzlich, video journalist who covered the tragedy. "It was up there with the top five of the horrific things I've ever dealt with."

The building at 2347 South Michigan Avenue, in the heart of the Motor Row entertainment district, has been vacant ever since.

DeShand Ray, the 24-year-old youngest son of Howard and Mary Ray, died that night. He was an aspiring entertainment promoter who was at the club to make connections.

"Where would he be? I mean, you never get past that," his father said. "I just wish he could have lived his life."

Months before the tragedy, a court order was issued to close the second floor nightclub for building violations.

"Somebody didn't do their job. The building should have been shut down for repair at that particular time, but it was not," Ray said.

The building's owners, Calvin Hollins Jr. and Dwaine Kyles, were charged with 21 counts of involuntary manslaughter, but were never convicted. Instead, they were found guilty of criminal contempt for violating that court order.

Judy Frydland, attorney for the Chicago Buildings Department in 2003, said following the tragedy a comprehensive communication system was put in place to better ensure court orders are following.

"Now when there's a business closure, it gets reported to every department imaginable, especially police fire, the alderman's office or alderperson's office gets noticed," she said.

But 20 years later, the Rays still want justice for their son. They lost their wrongful death lawsuit against the city and have not filed a case in federal court. It is the last known E2 lawsuit.

"They are alleging that if the city had produced a full accounting of what was recorded by nine to 11 cameras, then they would have a fuller picture of what happened," said their attorney Eric Onyango.

Kyles said through his attorney that he thinks of the victims and their families every day, and added, "The City of Chicago has still not lived up to its obligations to the victims and their families to do things like erect a monument in their memory or to fully investigate and explain both the successes and failures of City personnel who were responsible for supervising and responding to the calls for help from the nightclub."

ABC7 reached out to the city, but they declined to comment on the statement from Kyles' attorney. ABC7 also reached out to the Hollins Jr., who also declined to comment.

In past years, the Ray family helped organize memorial gatherings with other victims' families on the anniversary of the tragedy, but they haven't gotten together since the pandemic and so far there is no memorial planned this year.