Family likely to file suit over fatal hotel fire

By Lena Mitchell/NEMS Daily Journal

CORINTH – The families of four Mississippi University for Women students want answers about the fire that caused their daughters’ deaths.
Though they have received reports on the cause of the fire, the families expect to file a legal complaint to uncover more information.
Killed in the fire were Jaslynn McGee, 19, of Corinth; Jamelia Brown, 18, of Grenada; and Catherine Muse, 18, and Alondan Turner, 18, both of Cordova, Ala. They were staying at the Days Inn in Hoover, Ala., while on a shopping trip.
The owner of the Days Inn as well as the Days Inn corporate franchiser have hired separate attorneys, said Casey Lott, a Booneville attorney who represents McGee’s family.
The fire reportedly was caused by incense left burning in the room of Dhirailal Bhagat, a maintenance worker.
“Although he didn’t specifically admit this,” Lott said, “I believe the delay in contacting the police was due to his immigration status. He ran upstairs and got a fire extinguisher, and it didn’t work. He ran back upstairs for a second one, and by the time he got back down to his room the fire was out of hand. Then he ran to the front desk to report it.”
Bhagat, 55, lived in the unit below the room in which the girls were staying. He had overstayed his work visa by more than two years, Lott said.
“He is of the Hindu faith, and he had a religious shrine in his room where he was burning incense,” Lott continued. “Why didn’t he just call 911 as soon as he saw the fire, or just knock on the girls’ door when he was running upstairs to get the fire extinguisher?”
The Hoover police chief has said no charges would be filed against Bhagat, but he is in the custody of the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service for possible deportation to his native India. However, Lott wants to question Bhagat.
“The families want answers from him,” Lott said.
Lott also noted that the wood-frame motel was built in 1969 and was not required to comply with new fire regulations.
“I think the fire could have been curtailed if there had been a sprinkler system,” Lott said. “There was nothing to prevent them installing them when they upgraded or refurbished.”
Lott and two attorneys for the other families have hired an expert who investigates cause and origin of fires.
“If the investigation reveals what we think it will,” Lott said, “we could file a complaint against the hotel as early as next week.”

Contact Lena Mitchell at (662) 287-9822 or lena.mitchell@djournal.com.