By Erick Johnson, Chicago Crusader
On the night of Feb. 17, 2003, hundreds of guests at the E2 nightclub were having a good time when confusion erupted and triggered a stampede that left 21 people dead and 50 injured.
Today, 15 years later, despite years of efforts, there’s no memorial or permanent marker to honor the memory of the victims. There’s been some talk about a marker, but no action.
As Chicago’s deadliest nightclub tragedy in the city’s history, one is needed to educate future generations about a two-story building that to this day remains vacant from a tragic incident that should have never happened.
Across Chicago and America stand memorials for people who have perished in tragic events that made headlines. Their senseless deaths sparked anger from residents and activism for families who fought to erect memorials to make sure their loved ones’ death do not go in vain.
However, in the Black community, the E2 nightclub tragedy is a fading memory. Families who have lost loved ones that night have grown weary about securing a memorial for the forgotten. E2’s owners have moved on with their lives after getting a slap on the wrist in court. With little money and no interest or support from civic organizations and politicians, discouragement is slowly eating away at the bond survivors once shared.
On Saturday, Feb. 17–the exact day of the 15th anniversary–about 20 survivors and family members met for breakfast at the Best Western Chicago Hotel to support each as painful memories resurfaced.
In years past, there were greater crowds, but this was the smallest gathering of them all despite it being the 15th anniversary. And unlike years’ past, there was no organized vigil outside the former E2 nightclub, 2347 S. Michigan Ave. in Chicago. After the breakfast, the group went their separate ways and from the way things are going, fewer will attend next year’s gathering.
Many have grown distrustful and won’t talk to the media. The funeral of Chicago Police Commander Paul Bauer took the spotlight on that Saturday. None of the city’s major newspapers mentioned anything about the E2 nightclub tragedy. CBS 2 was the only television station that mentioned the event, which was just a 30-second voiceover with no interviews with any survivor or family members. Later that Saturday, 21 crosses for each of the victims leaned against the building with its former, infamous façade now gone. The snow came down as people attending the Chicago Auto Show at McCormick Place passed by after finding a place to park their vehicles. Some shrugged their shoulders as they passed the scene.
It was here on a busy night on Feb. 17, 2003 that a security guard used pepper spray to break up a fight. Guests at E2 believed they were experiencing a terrorist attack. Panic ensued on the club’s second level. Hundreds of patrons rushing to the building’s only exit, created a stampede that jammed the stairwell. More than 1,100 jammed the space that was designed to hold 240 people. Police said the jammed crowds were as high as six feet in some areas on the stairwell.
The building’s owners, Calvin Hollins Jr. and Dwain Kyles, were charged with 21 counts of involuntary manslaughter, but were never convicted. Instead, they were found guilty of criminal contempt for violating a court order to close the second-floor nightclub for building violations months before the tragedy. Had the owners obeyed the order, 21 people may have been alive today.
For their crime, Hollins Jr. and Kyles served two years of probation and 500 hours of community service. They lost their nightclub, but families lost their children, mothers and fathers. On top of their pain, they have become the forgotten in a city where it’s easy to become another statistic, especially if you’re Black and poor.
There are memorials from tragedies throughout Chicago. There’s a marker on Wacker Drive to honor the 844 drowning victims of the 1915 Eastland Disaster. There were Black servants on the Eastlander when it turned over, dumping 2,572 passengers into the Chicago River. Newspapers back then didn’t report on Black deaths or the lives of people of color. There’s one for the more than 600 victims who perished in a fire in the Iroquois Theatre in Chicago’s downtown in 1903. There’s a memorial for the 92 children and three nuns who died in the fire that gutted the Lady of the Angels Catholic School on the city’s West Side. In Des Plaines just outside Chicago, a memorial stands near the site where American Airlines Flight 191 crashed killing 258 passengers and 13 crew members.
Three days after the tragedy at E2, a fire that was started by the use of indoor fireworks ripped through the Station Nightclub in Warwick, RI, killing 100 people and injuring 200 others. They have a sweeping memorial park complete with trees, and the names of all 100 victims engraved on brick-lined sidewalks.
Most of the memorials are spearheaded by civic organizations and families who have the money to erect a monument to honor their loved ones. Most of the dead on memorials in Chicago and across the country are white, but who cares about Black victims?
For years, Howard Ray, Sr. has been fighting to get a memorial for E2 victims. Ray lost his son, DaShand, 24, in the E2 tragedy. He wanted a memorial on or near the building that was once E2 nightclub, but the building is private property. Most often, building owners don’t want memorials on their buildings because of the negative attention it brings to their property.
Last August, Ray posted a video on YouTube to announce that 21 trees have been planted on the east side of Lake Shore Drive at 43rd St. Ray said Clear Channel Communications, which was promoting an event the night of the tragedy, gave $10,000 to purchase the trees. Ray said he paid $3,000 of his own money to cover the remaining costs.
Ray said a fitting memorial would cost at least $13,000 to build and erect.
He said he lobbied the Chicago Park District to erect a memorial wall to tell visitors why the trees are there and the park official told him that he would need the support of the city’s alderman to get the memorial erected. Ray said he went to Alderman Sophia King’s office, which told him that they were waiting on Congressman Danny K. Davis to make a move.
“The only thing we’re asking them to do is find it in their heart to make this a reality,” Ray said. “We’ve gotten to the point where we not only want to celebrate the memories, but keep them alive for future generations.”
The Crusader left voicemail and email messages for the Chicago Park District’s director of communications, who didn’t respond by Crusader press time Wednesday, Feb. 21. Via a text message, King said, “I have not been updated on those efforts. I am happy to discuss again however. Please let me know what is being discussed and how you feel we can be helpful.”
The Crusader then left a message on King’s voicemail and sent her a text message asking about her conversation with Ray. As of Crusader press time, King had not responded.
The Crusader did speak to Davis, who said, “I don’t know the status (of the memorial), but I’m going to pursue it. I’m going to get the rest of the Black elected officials to take a position on the issue. I don’t have any authority on local matters that don’t fall within the jurisdiction of the federal government. I commend the young man for reaching out to me. It was a terrible, terrible tragedy. Some of the people who died I knew.”
Michael Wilson, Jr., who was just 3 when his father, Michael Wilson, 22, died at the E2 nightclub, was too young to know about his dad. He said he visits the grave of his father in Westchester every year on the anniversary of the tragedy.
He said a permanent memorial to all the victims would help him heal.
“It would be nice, but I never thought about that,” he said.