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E2 nightclub deaths raises uncomfortable questions

Updated: December 18, 2011 5:24PM

The last time I talked to Calvin Hollins, he had gotten religion.

He wasn’t carrying a Bible, wearing a big cross, or speaking in Scripture. But he was leaning heavily on his faith.

His prayers were answered Wednesday when a state appeals court threw out the guilty verdicts and jail sentences against him and Dwain Kyles related to the 2003 stampede at E2 nightclub that killed 21 people.

“I feel relieved, blessed, exonerated,” Hollins told me Wednesday. “It has been a long journey. I knew at the end of the road I was going to be vindicated.”

In 2009, Hollins and Kyles were found guilty and sentenced to two years behind bars for violating a judge’s order to close the second floor of the nightclub.

The pair always maintained that the city never ordered them to close the entire second floor, only the VIP section. Appellate Justice Michael J. Murphy, who wrote the majority opinion, apparently agreed.

“We disagree that the formal order was as clear and unambiguous as the city maintains the law requires,” Murphy wrote.

Both Hollins and Kyles, who is a lawyer, were consistent about this point during the eight years that the case has dragged on. But their arguments fell on deaf ears.

Someone had to pay for the 21 lives that were lost on that tragic night.

And it was easier for the city to blame the club owners for being open than it would have been for officials to explain, in the wake of 9/11, why the fire department was unable to rescue people who were visibly piled up at the club’s door.

There were also too many uncomfortable questions.

Was it the fault of the disc jockey who allegedly told security guards to pepper spray an unruly crowd? Was it the fault of the women who got into a fight over a man? Or was it the fault of people who panicked and ran over each other trying to get out of the exit.

Not even influential black community leaders, politicians or prominent business people who had regularly dined at E2’s restaurant could save Hollins and Kyles from City Hall’s wrath.

It was less painful for the victims’ loved ones, who were reeling from shock and grief, to condemn the club’s owners as the bad guys, than it was for them to contemplate how the dangerous behavior inside the nightclub may have contributed to this disaster.

Unfortunately, the fact that the black community was divided over who was responsible for this tragedy helped the city keep the spotlight off an important component of safety: emergency preparedness.

“This was just vengefulness on the city’s part, just malice,” Hollins said reflecting on the past eight years.

“[The city] was trying to avoid their own culpability. I know that being in politics for so long, I know exactly what they were doing, but I never thought they would do it to us in this way. It is all about the city not wanting to live up to its responsibilities,” he said.

The city still contends the club owners violated a “clear and mandatory court order, and but for that violation no one would have died or been injured,” according to an e-mail statement sent to a reporter.

Hollins maintains that he and Kyles did nothing wrong.

“No one had to die that night. No one. Had the city done what it was supposed to do, no one had to die,” he said.

I’d hate to think that the city’s pursuit of criminal charges against Hollins and Kyles was a charade.

But with all of the lawyers the city has at its disposal, didn’t one of them understand — as the appeals court apparently did — that the city had no case because it could not explain how the building code violations related to the incident and deaths?

Unfortunately, we will never know if the city’s response to the emergency at E2 was not up to par and contributed to these deaths — primarily because the city’s prosecution created an untenable distraction.

Maybe there was no justice to be had.

Still, the families of the E2 victims deserved better than scapegoats.

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