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4 Young Women

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So much sad news as 2010 begins--Haiti, the most noteworthy. But the loss of four women fulfilling promise in Birmingham hits very close to home.

Spike Lee's Oscar-nominated documentary film, "4 Little Girls" came to mind this weekend when I heard the tragic news about four young women who perished in a Birmingham motel fire. Lee's film was about the 16th Avenue Baptist Church bombing in Birmingham that claimed the lives of four African-American youngsters on September 15, 1963: Addie Mae Collins (aged 14), Denise McNair (aged 11), Carole Robertson (aged 14), and Cynthia Wesley (aged 14). It was a domestic terrorist attack prompted by racial hatred. The girls died together in the basement of the church as they were preparing for Sunday school.

I call Birmingham my second home and have been to the 16th Street Baptist Church on numerous occasions. It is hallowed ground in American history.

Forty-six years later, four African-American coeds from the Mississippi University for Women were living out the dreams and promise that the families of those four little girls could only imagine: Alondan Turner (aged 18) and Catherine Muse (aged 18), Jaslynn McGee, (aged 19), and Jamelia Brown (aged 18). Alondan Turner and Catherine Muse were cousins from Cordova, Alabama. Jaslynn McGee was from Corinth, Mississippi and Jamelia Brown from Grenada, MS. All four lived in the same dorm at MUW.

The women called 911 but by the time fire and rescue reached the blaze, it was too late to rescue the women. They died together in one motel room.

This tragedy occurred at the two-story Days Inn at the intersection of Highway 31 and Interstate 65 in Hoover, a suburb of Birmingham. I happened to be within a few miles of the fire Saturday night, as I was looking after my aunt who was in the hospital recovering from a stroke.

My Aunt Virginia and I know this Days Inn location very well. It has a Waffle House attached to the building and we've used that restaurant as a family meeting spot for decades. Not once do I recall our ever checking out the motel. I can envision these college girls choosing the motel for its central location to a lot of Birmingham attractions.

I went online to read customer reviews of the Days Inn Hoover motel and the visual picture of this place was grim. A lack of cleanliness and poor customer service were usual complaints. Several reviewers warned others to avoid this motel at all costs. Out-of-towners like these four young women would have been unsuspecting. From a distance, the Days Inn appeared attractive, set high on a hill with the bright yellow Waffle House sign on its right side.

This 'appearances can be deceiving' picture makes the Hoover fire chief's remarks most chilling. He said the fact that this particular Days Inn was located on a hill made it more difficult to get the fire trucks in place to battle the raging fire. The fire engulfed over 25 rooms in an hour's time. These four women were the only ones who perished. Why?

My heartfelt prayers go to the families of these four Alabama and Mississippi women who were beginning their advanced study. The four were inseparable, all on scholarship, and had established themselves on campus through social clubs and dramatic arts. They will leave a major void on the campus of MUW. Their families, already with a hole in their hearts, will have to endure what may turn out to be a long and painful investigation into a tragedy that might have been avoided.

Four little girls. Four young women. Eight gaps of what might have been on this Martin Luther King Jr. holiday.