The proximate cause of the stampede was reported to be the use of pepper spray to break up a fight. Both because of the noxious spray and also because of panic among those who were unsure what the chemical was, many patrons made a rush towards the exits. The cause of death was not fire, as in the case of many other famous nightclub disasters, but trampling and suffocation. Although at least one emergency exit was opened by a security guard, there were disputed reports of one chained shut. The only exit known to most patrons was the narrow, steep front stairwell, with narrow doors that opened inward, against fire code.
The doors at the top opened outward, and as the crowd pushed them open, people standing on the small upper landing were tossed down the stairs. The doors, normally open, were closed after security guards removed the participants in a fight. As more patrons tried to exit, they were forced on top of the bodies of those who had already fallen. Security guards attempted to remove bodies from below, but the pile of people grew faster than they could clear it.
Captured in shocking photographs and news footage, dozens of people crammed in narrow exits: they were stacked one on top of the other, unable to move and, in many cases, even breathe. [Sadovi: 2007b] More than 1,500 stampeded in an attempt to escape the spray and chaos inside. (Wilgoren: 2003a)
There were a number of controversies associated with the case. First, many alleged that the club owners consistently violated building codes on the number of patrons who could be present. Second, Jesse Jackson had in the past supported the club owners when community groups had sought to shut the club down for building code and other violations. (Wilgoren: 2003b) Third, there were allegations that the security staff were improperly trained. At least one member of the security staff was reported to have used pepper spray to stop a fight between two patrons. [Sandvovi: 2007a]