CHICAGO (AP) – It was a chaotic scene: hundreds of screaming people stumbling down the darkened stairs of an illegally operated nightclub, gasping for air and stepping on bodies, only to find themselves trapped at the bottom trying to escape through a single exit.

Shabina Khatri
AP PHOTO
Friends and family of victims of the nightclub tragedy console each other yesterday morning.

At least 21 people were killed and 57 injured in the stampede early yesterday at the crowded E2 nightclub, authorities said.

There were reports that as many as 500 people were crammed into the second-floor club when someone sprayed Mace or pepper spray to quell a fight about 2 a.m.

The nightclub was operating in violation of a months-old court order meant to close it down, fire officials said. A judge later denied a request by the owners to reopen.

“The owner knows damn well that he is not to open that second-floor facility,” said Fire Commissioner James Joyce. City officials said they plan to go to court as early as today to seek criminal contempt charges against the owner.

The nightclub had been cited for 11 building code violations and the city has been in court with the owners since last July, officials said.

Witnesses described a frenzied scene of some people trying to climb through the ceiling, while others were trampled in the frantic rush for an exit, their faces and bodies flattened against the glass front door.

Some people fainted on the club floor; others were coughing and crying, gagging and blindly groping for any way out.

“‘People were being trapped underneath you … so we’re actually standing on people’s heads and we didn’t even know it,” said Amishoov Blackwell, a 30-year-old patron. “It was just bodies laying everywhere.”

Blackwell said one man crushed between two people told him, “I can’t breathe! I want you to hold my hand, man. If I don’t make it, tell my mom that I love her!’ He just basically collapsed.”

Some witnesses reported that the lights were cut in the stairwell.

Yesterday afternoon, Joyce backed off earlier statements that firefighters had used sledgehammers and pry bars to open other doors in the half-block-long building.

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