Architecture Engineering Planning Forensic Services

Chicago Nightclub Disaster

The deadliest club disaster in Chicago's history occurred on President's Day 2003. At 2:25AM, emergency calls were received from the scene of a nightclub located on the 2nd floor of a former automobile showroom and service shop in the historic Motor Row District on the near south side of Chicago. The club, had been under a court order to remain closed until structural repairs were made to the cracked wood members and loose connections in the wood roof trusses of the 1908 building that City of Chicago building inspectors had found and until a licensed structural engineer could verify the structural capacity of those trusses to support a series of private "VIP sky boxes" and mezzanine bar areas that overlooked the main stage, bar area and dance floor.

Notwithstanding the court order, the club remained in operation. As security videos later showed, more than 1,100 patrons, far more than the posted maximum capacity of 240 patrons, were in attendance when a part-time security guard used a Mace-like spray in an effort to break up a fight on the dance floor. In the panic to escape the pepper-spray cloud, most of the club patrons tried to flee down the main front entry stairway, but the large number of people soon caused many to stumble and fall and resulted in a mass pile-up on the stairway with bodies falling down on top of one another.

Patrons who tried to leave from the rear found that one of those two exits, aside from having dozens of wood dining tables stored directly above the stairs, had been chained shut by the club owners to prevent paying customers from opening the door and sneaking their friends in without paying admission. The other rear exit stair, in violation of codes, led down to the 1st floor restaurant kitchen exit. Thus, those who sought to flee by these two routes were forced to return upstairs and try to escape down front stair, only further adding to the panic and number of people at that one viable exit.

Twenty-one patrons were crushed to death or asphyxiated in the main stairwell and more than fifty others were injured. Emergency responders were forced to break down the locked rear doors, come up via the back stairs, and attempt to extract or resuscitate patrons by removing them from above rather than from the street side of the main exit.

Several days after the event, we were asked by the City of Chicago Law Department to visit the scene and independently assess the site for evidence of building code violations as well as to verify whether any of the required structural remediation had been done.

Our inspection of both the nightclub and downstairs restaurant revealed numerous building code violations particularly related to the inadequate number, size and construction of the means of egress from the restaurant and from both the main and the upper mezzanine nightclub levels. We also found that fire-resistive construction had been omitted throughout the club particularly at the main entry and around a half-built built open elevator shaft intended to provide accessibility compliance. Furthermore, there were no building permits for the "VIP sky boxes" areas that also lacked proper exits and enclosures. Exits and toilets were undersized for even the posted club capacity, let alone the numbers of patrons that frequented the club. In addition, at least two roof trusses required major repairs or upgrades to support either actual or mandated loads.

Our analyses were incorporated into the City's actions against the building owner and became part of the court-ordered settlement that ordered him to resolve all building code and structural issues prior to reopening the facility to the public. In addition, the historic building facade was to be restored in compliance with Chicago's landmark ordinance.

While the building exterior was restored and those building code and structural issues not specifically related to the use of the upstairs as a nightclub were resolved per this settlement, both the club and the downstairs restaurant were closed down and the building has remained vacant since the tragedy.