Angry Chicago officials today blamed what they characterized as rogue club owners who willfully broke the law for the stampede at a crowded nightclub that killed 21 people early Monday.

Prosecutors said it is too soon to determine whether criminal charges will be filed in the deaths of 12 women and nine men who ranged in age from 19 to 43. But that did not stop Mayor Richard M. Daley from moving to close the club, called E2, and punish the owners. City attorneys filed contempt charges this afternoon against the owner, Le Mirage Studio Ltd., for operating in violation of a court order that barred it from opening the top floor of the two-story building, which also houses Epitome restaurant. The orders, signed last summer by Cook County Circuit Judge Daniel J. Lynch, called for a "mandatory order not to occupy 2nd floor" as a result of code violations. Attorneys for the owners said they followed the court order and dispute that it banned them from using the dance floor.

"When a court issues an order against you, it is your responsibility to follow that order," a visibly upset Daley said at a news conference this morning. "You don't have the right to disobey that order until someone catches you or until you have a disaster happen, as it did Monday morning."

No decision was made on the contempt charges today, though attorneys for E2 agreed to temporarily shut down the entire facility while the investigation continues. E2 had been under orders since July not to open the second floor to patrons, and actions were underway to revoke its liquor license for violations, including selling liquor to minors.

Andrew Grant, an attorney for Le Mirage, said club owners had a deal with officials to keep the club open until a hearing next month on the code violations, the Associated Press reported. City officials denied that.

Ministers and experts in crowd control suggested today that the city may share blame because the facility -- which advertises widely and stays open until 4 a.m. -- should have been shut down sooner. But Police Superintendent Terry G. Hillard said his department was not aware of the order before the stampede. And Chicago Corporation Counsel Mara Georges said the city does not have the authority to padlock a business when part of it -- the restaurant -- is operating legally.

"Obviously these people were intent on breaking the law, and they broke the law," she said. "There is nothing the city could have done absent being at the property 24 hours a day."

Fire Commissioner James Joyce also bristled at questions that the city had done anything wrong, saving his ire for the security guards who police have determined sprayed a pepper irritant into the crowded club to break up a fight. The practice has occurred many times, people who frequent the club have said over the past two days. "There was reckless conduct on the part of management," Joyce said. "I have been around a long time and I have never heard of spraying the crowd. That's tantamount to yelling 'fire' in a crowded theater."

Daley said he had ordered city departments to review building and fire codes and regulations regarding private security guards to determine if changes in law are needed to prevent something like this from happening again.

"Let me assure you, the city will use every tool at its disposal to make sure that justice is done, and to ensure the safety and well-being of the people of Chicago," he said.

But calls grew throughout the day for an independent investigation -- possibly by Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan -- since the city might also be taken to court for not enforcing the order against the club. "The responsibility for an independent criminal investigation cannot come from the people who could themselves end up in court," said Jesse L. Jackson, whose Rainbow/PUSH organization has been consoling families and helping them arrange to pay burial expenses.

Paul Wertheimer of Crowd Management Strategies said such an investigation should look at "not only the building owners and the security, but also the fire and the police and the building department and everybody else involved." He said an investigation must go beyond the use of pepper spray and inquire about whether city officials should have done more.

"If we don't really understand what happens, it will occur again," said Wertheimer, who contracts with groups about crowd safety and control. "We need to understand what went wrong and how to fix it. The city is in a defensive mode trying to protect their interests. We don't need finger-pointing in only one direction."

As that debate continues, families are now turning to the grim task of burying the dead. Daley is asking that on Sunday all churches ring their bells 21 times in remembrance of the victims.

James Dinnall of Chicago pauses outside the E2 club to look at crosses bearing the names of victims who were killed in a stampede there early Monday.