4 Young Women: Their Days End

03/25/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

This is a story about the loss of four young women that gets worse as more information is revealed.

One week ago I was lying on my aunt's couch in Birmingham, Alabama, unable to fall asleep from the stress of watching her lie almost motionless in a hospital bed. By that point I had spent three restless nights on a chair next to her bed. I returned to her residence to catch some Z's before beginning my long journey back to New York to start the spring semester of teaching at Syracuse University.

It was a foggy and drizzly Saturday evening. I watched the Connecticut women's basketball team defend its 56-game winning streak in a lopsided boring game against Notre Dame.

The next morning I went by to check on my aunt before departing. I said goodbye to Birmingham, a city I love so much, full to the brim with fond memories from childhood to the present: Alabama football, sweet tea, UAB (the University that Ate Birmingham), Galleria shopping, the downtown skyline.

The same night I was lying on that couch, four coeds from the Mississippi University for Women are socializing in their hotel over the Martin Luther King holiday weekend. The foursome is made up of Jamelia Brown of Grenada, MS, Catherine Ann Muse and Alondan Turner of Cordova, Ala., and Jaslynn McGee of Corinth, MS. Two are future nurses, Muse a theater major, and Turner majoring in accounting. They are 90 minutes away from their comfortable freshmen dorm, Kincannon Hall, in Columbus, Mississippi.

They are in room 292 at the Days Inn Hoover, a Birmingham suburb. It's around 8 p.m. A blaze starts in room 268. The women call 911. They can hear the spraying of the water from the fire truck. At least one calls her mother to report the ceiling coming down on them. In less than an hour's blaze, their lives are gone. The wind pushed the flames in front of their door leaving no escape.

All that laughing, talking, and visiting before the start of the second semester of their freshmen year had ended.

The fire was not intentionally set, but was a result of employee negligence. A maintenance man who had worked at the Days Inn Hoover for several years left some incense burning in his room, which within 30 minutes had started a fire that quickly swept through dozens of rooms. He tried to put out the fire in vain, first with a small fire extinguisher that failed to operate and then through trying to use two other hotel room phones that were not functioning. Finally on the third try, he reached the front desk. Precious seconds were lost before professional firefighters could be notified and in place to try to save these women.

The maintenance man, though living on an expired work visa, will not be charged for the fire. He is now in the custody of U.S. immigration authorities.

Here is a shocking excerpt from a CBS 42 news report about the Days Inn Hoover, a forewarning to all future travelers, so that these four young women did not die in vain.

The Days Inn had no sprinklers. It wasn't a requirement of building code back in 1964 when the hotel was built. Older buildings like the Days Inn were also made of combustible materials which exacerbate such a blaze.

Another shocking report is what previous customers were saying about the Days Inn Hoover before the tragedy. Just read Trip Adviser:

This Days Inn was a franchise hotel in a large conglomerate hotel group. These customer reviews are a shameful foreshadowing of the tragedy that took place on Saturday, January 16, 2010.

All four women were laid to rest this weekend. They were teenagers, freshmen all, on scholarship. The lives of these four young African-American university women should never be forgotten.

With the permission of the girls' families, Days Inn needs to set up educational scholarships at MUW in their memory. It is just one of many steps it needs to take now. It needs to bring all of its locations up to fire code regulations of modern industry standards. In 1964, when the hotel was built, America was a different place. Safety regulations were not what they are today, nor were race relations.

This is not about preserving a corporate reputation or placating public anger. It's about doing the right thing: continuing the thread of educational opportunity that was underway and so abruptly ended.

Clyde Guinn is the President of Days Inns Worldwide, part of the Wyndham Hotel Group hotel franchise. His company pledges the following to its customers: "We are committed to providing value-conscious travelers with a clean, comfortable room and sunsational service each and every time they visit any one of our 1800-plus locations across the globe."

You can contact the parent company to Days Inn here:

Wyndham Hotel Group
22 Sylvan Way
Parsippany, NJ 07054

The co-directors of media relations follow:

Christine Da Silva
Director, Media Relations
Wyndham Hotel Group
22 Sylvan Way
Parsippany, NJ 07054
(973) 753-6590

Evy Apostolatos
Director, Media Relations
Wyndham Hotel Group
22 Sylvan Way
Parsippany NJ 07054
(973) 753-6590

Until and unless Days Inn shows some proactive leadership surrounding this tragedy, I will have nothing to do with the chain and encourage others to do the same.

There is no closure for the families of these four women. As ATF Special Agent Jim Cavanaugh said of the disaster:

If you change any one event...window at the back of the room, cement deck, sprinkler, no wind, the hotel not on a high hill where the firemen could get to it fast, the hydrant closer. Change any one event, the girls would be alive.

A week ago, those girls were still alive.