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City steps up nightclub checks

Chicago deaths prompt Portland to check crowd sizes, exits

While public safety officials consider Portland's nightclubs safe overall, a stampede at an overcrowded Chicago club Monday that left 21 dead and 57 injured has spurred the Portland Fire Bureau to begin systematic spot-checks of local nightspots during their busiest hours.

The checks will seek to ensure that no overcrowding is taking place and that, unlike exits at the E2 club where the Chicago tragedy took place, fire doors remain accessible and unlocked.

The fire bureau also will meet with club owners to discuss the things they can do to prevent such panic-driven stampedes.

'Unfortunately, this is a great teachable moment,' said Portland Fire Marshal Jim Crawford. 'There's an opportunity for awareness levels to be raised, and we'll take advantage of that.

'But we'll also look for ways to be more proactive and do more regular inspections' other than those performed during regular biannual checks, he said.

Crawford said the bureau will develop a specific spot-check plan for clubs in the next week.

Generally, club owners say the added oversight will reinforce the notion that their venues are safe.

Currently, the bureau only makes spot-checks at clubs when it fields specific complaints about possible overcrowding or when it hears of an unsanctioned assembly, such as a rave.

'Right now, we don't have a dedicated staff for checking this out, so we're trying to figure out how to get it accomplished because it's an important issue,' said Jim Schwager, the bureau's supervising engineer.

Overcrowding generally has not been a problem on Portland's nightclub scene. Banana Joe's,

9 N.W. Second Ave., experienced occupancy issues when it first opened two years ago that since have been resolved, Schwager said. The club does face state charges that it violated terms of its liquor license.

At least 13 clubs in downtown Portland have occupancy rates exceeding 500 people.

Crawford said no club has experienced chronic overcrowding since the early 1990s, when the Starry Night venue participated in a counterfeit ticket scam. The ploy figured in the murder by owner Larry Hurwitz of a club employee who knew about the ruse.

The E2 tragedy this week occurred six months after Chicago safety officials had ordered the club closed for not making enough exits available to its patrons. The club had admitted as many as 1,500 patrons, or three times its maximum allowable occupancy.

The trampling occurred as patrons hurried down a single stairwell after a security guard reportedly sprayed pepper gas to quell a fight.

Portland's occupancy rate for clubs requires 7 square feet per occupant. A room with 7,000 square feet, for instance, would mandate a maximum occupancy rate of 1,000, depending on the number of tables and other factors.

The city requires two exits when the occupancy rate ranges from 50 to 500 people, three exits for 501 to 1,000 people and four exits when the rate exceeds 1,000. The doors must be passable from the inside, meaning they cannot be padlocked from the outside, among other requirements.

Clubs not meeting such city standards face loss of their liquor license, said Ken Palke, spokesman for the Oregon Liquor Control Commission.

Berbati's Pan, a rock and hip-hop club at 231 S.W. Ankeny St., offers eight exits, five in the large club area. The club is approximately the same size as the section of E2 in which the stampede occurred.

'Imagine 1,000 more people in here and having just one exit,' said co-owner John Papaioannou. 'I can't believe they did that. Our security force is trained to not let in too many people.'

Crystal Ballroom, 1332 W. Burnside St., counts four 'giant' egresses from its large (1,500-person capacity) former dance hall. Jimi Biron, the Crystal's general manager, said that during emergencies the Crystal will post security guards at each exit and give them bullhorns to direct patrons from the club in case the power fails.

Fire bureau officials worry most about warehouse-based raves in which the operators have not sought permits. Few of them have enough exits, noted bureau spokesman Neil Heesacker.

Contact Andy Giegerich at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .