Twenty-one lives. Somebody had to pay.
And it might even seem like common sense for a housing court judge to sentence E2 club owners Dwain Kyles and Calvin Hollins to serve an unprecedented two years in prison for the tragic deaths of those club-goers on Feb. 17, 2003. Anybody who saw pictures of the humanity crushed against the glass doors of the South Loop club couldn't help but want justice for the dead and their families -- especially the children -- they left behind.
Except it's not.
A lot went wrong that fateful night, starting when two still-unidentified women got into a fight over a man, and a DJ ordered security to use pepper spray, sending the crowd into a panic. The specter of 9/11 was still fresh in hearts and minds, so those who yelled that the spray was indeed poison gas may or may not have known they were basically yelling "fire!" in a crowded theater.
But they did.
A lot more went wrong when police responded, treating the site like a crime scene instead of a rescue operation. Why, if the Chicago Fire Department has a designated rescue squad, as a retired firefighter told me this week, were those people crushed against locked doors? Firefighters have a variety of tools that can cut through and pry bolted objects. Pick a metal. The department has a tool that can cut right through it.
Monday afternoon, I sat down with Kyles, 55, a lawyer by profession. The Hyde Parker had operated venues at that site for 17 years. I assumed I would see a signs of fear and anxiety from a man facing prison, albeit in housing court where fines are the norm. But he was in a fighting spirit, which, I guess, comes naturally since he's the son of noted civil rights leader Rev. Samuel "Billy" Kyles. Besides, he said, the biggest challenge of his life was in 1991, when his son Quinn was born with a defective heart and got a transplant.
Kyles had every reason to believe his punishment and that of his friend, Hollins, would be just. After all, in March 2007, Judge Dennis Porter stopped the trial against Hollins, Kyles and promoter Marco Flores midway to declare them not guilty. Porter called the tragedy "a horrible accident," and refused to even hear the defense.
"This is 21 people dead," Kyles said. "There is no judge in America who would take that lightly."
Consider another tragic building incident, the June 29, 2003 Wrightwood porch collapse that killed 13 people, injuring 57. Building owner Philip Pappas admitted no wrong, but agreed to pay a fine and rebuild the porches. The contractor was banned from doing business in the city.
When the Cook County building at 69 W. Washington caught fire on Oct. 17, 2003, the county not only quickly settled but authorized an independent investigation to better learn how to respond to such fires in the future.
Where's the independent investigation here? This was arguably the city's first test of post-9/11 preparedness, and it failed. How will we learn if true responsibility is never assigned?
"I just don't think they would have made the same call on the North Side," said Kyles, noting that hours of surveillance tape from 11 cameras had been erased by police that could show them mulling about inside the club before the crowds started a second wave of panic. "I think they were pretty nonchalant about the whole thing."
Added retired CFD inspector Ken Westbrook: "The families should be demanding an inquiry."
To be clear, Kyles and Hollins, were convicted of violating a court order to close the second floor of the club, the meaning of which has been in much dispute. Did the order mean the bottom floor or the mezzanine VIP area? This dispute is bogus because the judge who issued it wrote exactly what he meant on something known as a "half-sheet." Clearly, this matter will be submitted on appeal because Cook County Associate Judge Daniel Gillespie had a copy, and could see for himself what a jury wasn't allowed to see.
Finally, consider that housing court judges rarely levy prison sentences. Either somebody is trying to make a statement or somebody else is being let off the hook in a case where the defendants have already been found not guilty in criminal court.
"That place ain't named Daley for nothing," Kyles said "All of those judges depend upon the Democratic machine to get elected. They're bound, compromised coming out of the gate."
This is a difficult case. By failing to punish somebody for these deaths, the City of Chicago risks sending a message that black life is cheap. Somebody had to pay, and punishing Kyles and Hollins is supposed to wrap this up without leaving the city -- and its wallet -- on the hook. But by failing to admit its own culpability in a crime scene that should have been treated as a rescue, the City of Chicago is failing to pay its own debt to these families.
Black life, in this case isn't cheap, it's free.