By Carol Robinson
— HOMEWOOD, Ala. (AP) — Katie Luong is inconsolable.
She knows people blame her for leaving her 11-month-old daughter to die in a sweltering SUV. But no one - not one single person - blames her more than she blames herself.
"I want to tell everybody that I wish I was in that car seat, not her," the weeping 31-year-old mother told AL.com/The Birmingham News. "If I had to die for her to live, I would have done that."
Gabriella Gi-Ny Luong, known to family members as Ella, was discovered by her mother about 1:20 p.m. Wednesday, still strapped in her car seat in the locked Lexus parked outside the family's Genesis Nail Spa. The temperature outside was about 90 degrees; inside the car it was roughly 127 degrees, authorities said.
Ella was unresponsive. Efforts, first by a nearby business owner and then paramedics, to revive her were unsuccessful. They rushed her to Children's of Alabama hospital anyway, where the staff pronounced her dead a short time later.
Luong, her husband, and a family friend Diana Huynh spoke with AL.com about the ordeal. They desperately want their privacy in this time of grief. But, they also don't want anyone to think they are monsters.
"Please ask anyone who knows me - I have never done anything wrong in my life," Luong pleaded.
Married for almost 10 years, the young couple tried for years to conceive. Success came only after their church family - the Vietnamese congregation at North Shelby Baptist Church - joined in collective prayer for conception for the couple.
They received the good news that Luong was pregnant one Thanksgiving. She had just graduated from UAB with a bachelor's degree in nursing and they decided on the name Gabriella, after the archangel Gabriel.
"I asked God for this baby," Luong said. "She was our gift from God."
The couple also opened their Homewood business about the same time of their daughter's birth, again choosing a biblical name. The long-awaited baby changed their lives. Though they were already active in their church, they became more so, to the point that Luong's husband started seminary.
"Our story is all about God," Luong said.
Both parents doted on the outgoing little girl. "She wouldn't even put her in daycare at church on Sundays," Hunyh said.
The Rev. Allan Murphy, senior pastor at North Shelby Baptist, agreed. "I can't explain what happened or why," Murphy said. "I do know they are loving parents who prayed to have a child and were careful in taking care of her."
"She was a conscientious mother and businesswoman," Murphy said.
On Wednesday, Luong put a sleeping Ella in her car seat and started the 10-mile drive to work. She was supposed to drop her off at the babysitter's house at 9:30 a.m.
But her mind was on overload - filled with thoughts and worries of a friend and employee who just recently hanged himself in a closet, only to be found there a week later. There was also concern for a close family friend, who is like a father to her, still hospitalized after having a stroke.
And in the midst of her worry and grief, she was planning Ella's first birthday party, set for Sunday at Oak Mountain State Park. It was too much, Luong admits.
"I had an uneasy feeling," she said. "I told my mom I felt like something was going to happen."
"She had too many things on her mind," Huynh said. "She was traumatized over her employee's death because she's never known anyone who has died, and there were so many people calling her yesterday about the birthday party."
"She was on the phone the whole time, and she said that cost her her baby's life," Huynh said. "She blames herself."
Unaware that she had left the baby inside the SUV, Luong went on with her day at work. When she arrived at the salon, she and her husband watched video on her cell phone from Ella dancing at their home the night before. "Music and dance was her passion," Luong said.
It was about 1:15 p.m. when the babysitter called, and asked Luong if Ella was sick and that was why she hadn't shown up. It was then that the frantic parents realized what happened and found Ella unconscious in her car seat. "I want you to tell everybody I wish I was in that car seat," Luong said.
Instead of throwing the best-ever birthday party Sunday, the parents will bury their only child. The grieving mother said she can't even comprehend a life without Ella. She prays her faith will sustain her. "Without God, I am nothing," she said.
Pastor Murphy knows her pain, to some extent. His own daughter drowned 14 years ago while on a mission trip in Mexico. "I know what it's like for a child to die," Murphy said. "Little Ella is with the Lord in Heaven."
Murphy said no one can undo what happened Wednesday. "There's no rewind, it's not a dream," he said. "It's reality."
"She's beating herself up about it and I can't take that away either," the pastor said. "There was certainly no malice."
Murphy, friends and family are praying for understanding. "When you hear just a few details, you can judge quickly but it's different when you know someone's heart and hear their hurt," he said. "It was a tragic thing that happened. A human tragedy."