"They keep telling us to go back ... We cannot go back. They need to let us out," one woman pleaded in a call from the clogged stairwell as people yelled in the background. The woman soon began to panic and screamed, "PLEASE! PLEASE! Could you please tell them? ... Please, I don't want to die!"
Another caller said that there were padlocks on the door and that patrons couldn't immediately get out. When emergency officials arrived at the club, security guards used a key to remove the locks, she said.
Police and firefighters were dispatched to the scene, but it's clear from the tape that neither they nor the people calling knew how serious the tragedy was, CBS News reports.
What was clear is that those who were trying to get out could not. Some of the conversations were almost inaudible as people screamed into the phone and 911 operators struggled to understand what was happening.
The Feb. 17 stampede at the E2 nightclub began when an irritant was used to break up a dance-floor fight and patrons fled for the doors, crushing one another in their attempts to leave. Twenty-one people died and more than 50 were injured.
Club owners have disputed the claim that some of the doors were locked. Andre Grant, an attorney for club owner Dwain Kyles, did not immediately return calls Monday night.
Police are investigating the incident, and no criminal charges have been filed, though several civil lawsuits have been filed against the club's owners and the city.
CBS News reports no one from the nightclub called 911. Twenty minutes after the first call came in, the Chicago Fire Department called the club and asked what was going on. Only then did someone at E2 say there were people piled on top of each other.
The following is an excerpt from the call placed by the Chicago Fire Department to the E2 club, where a woman answered the phone:
Chicago Fire Department: Okay, what's the situation in there ma'am?
E2 Club: The situation is that we have a lot of people piled on top of each other trying to leave the facility. So you know.
E2: So we need to speak to people there are a lot of people on top of each other.
CFD: So inside the building near the exit door?
E2: It's right where the exit door is.
CFD: You have peopled piled on top of each other, like trampled or what?
E2: Kind of, yeah. They have the police chief down here. So okay, so really I'm not down there so I really can't give you a proper description of what's going on.
CFD: There's one exit outside of the building there ma'am?
E2: No it's just the people, and it's not that there is one exit. There are three exits out the building.
CFD: Can you direct them to the other exits where they can get out?
E2: There are police chiefs downstairs working with these people. I'm sure that they are doing the best of their capabilities.
CFD: Okay, goodbye ma'am.
The tape released Monday by the city's Office of Emergency Management and Communications contains about 30 calls. The calls on the tape were from cell phones and none were from people who later died, city spokesman Larry Langford said.
Many callers complained about the irritant's effects as they coughed and gasped for air.
"I can't breathe ... my sister's having an asthma attack (and) we cannot get out," a woman said.