20 years since the E2 & The Station nightclub disasters

121 people died at two nightclub tragedies in Chicago and Rhode Island just 3 days apart...

This week marked a pair of grim anniversaries — surprisingly muted, though not for those who survived and the family and friends of those who didn’t.

It was 20 years ago that two of the worst nightclub disasters in recent American history occurred just three days apart.

On February 17 2003, more than 1,000 — some say more than 1,500 — were gathered at Chicago’s E2 Nightclub, located at 2347 S. Michigan Avenue. Though accounts would vary about what triggered the tragedy, a large brawl in the club upstairs from Epitome restaurant lead to security using pepper spray to subdue as many as 15 people who were fighting. Nearby patrons attempted to flee from the heavy dispersal through the crowded space, which lead to a stampede. During the subsequent trial of the club owners, testimony suggested that at least some of the exits were barred (presumably to prevent the brawling parties from reentering the club); nearly everyone rushed to a stairwell leading to the front exit. Patrons would describe the crowd collapsing into just a stack of bodies. Twenty one of them would die of suffocation — the coroner’s report used the horrifying term “compressional asphyxia” — more than 50 were injured. Scenes on television showed patrons carrying lifeless bodies out of the club

Among the numerous lawsuits to be settled was a wrongful death claim against Clear Channel which alleged the DJ at E2 “directed security to use pepper spray to stop a disturbance on the dance floor between two women at approximately 2:25 AM on February 17, 2003. He then further incited the crowd when he yelled over the PA system that it was a terrorist attack,” according to The National Trial Lawyers.

Just three days later in Rhode Island, pyrotechnics would lead to a fire at The Station nightclub in West Warwick. During a show by the rock band Great White, a type of stage pyrotechnic called “gerbs” ignited acoustic foam in the small space. The fire spread within seconds — within a minute, the band was off-stage and a fire alarm had gone off. As people attempted to leave through the front door, the crowd came to a standstill in a narrow hallway. 100 people were killed in the fire or the crush and 230 were injured.

The two seemingly unrelated clubs had another connection — in response to the E2 stampede three days earlier, a local news reporter named Jeffrey Derderian had arranged for a cameraman, Brian Butler, to record footage for broadcast on WPRI in Providence, Rhode Island.

Derderian had only been working for the broadcaster for a few days. He was also part-owner of The Station nightclub.

Controversially, Derderian’s brother Michael was the only owner of either venue to receive jail time — 15 years, with four to serve. He was released in June 2009. Jeffrey Derderian received 500 hours of community service. The prosecutor denounced the plea agreement.

E2 owners Dwain Kyles and Calvin Hollins were convicted of criminal contempt for violation of a court order that determined E2 should have been shut down the previous July and received probation. Prosecutors were unable to obtain convictions on 21 counts of manslaughter.

The site of The Station was purchased and transformed into the Station Fire Memorial Park. In Chicago, families gathered this year for a vigil at the now-empty site of the E2 nightclub demanded the vacant building be torn down and a memorial built to honor the victims of the tragedy. The building at 23rd and Michigan has seen at least one renovation but has remained unoccupied for 20 years.

“It hurts so much,” said Mary Carwell, mother of one victim, told Chicago’s local ABC affiliate. “It tore me apart, and it’s still tearing me apart to this day.”