As the sun slipped below the horizon on a cool Sunday night in Hammond, about a thousand residents, veterans and active military members filed into Cate Square Park, holding candles and American flags to honor the 11 men killed Tuesday during a military training exercise near Pensacola, Florida.
A crew of four Louisiana National Guardsmen from a Hammond unit were flying a Black Hawk helicopter with seven Marines on board, conducting a routine training exercise above the Gulf of Mexico when the helicopter, shrouded in a bank of fog, crashed into Santa Rosa Sound.
“This hit our home pretty hard. It hit our community hard,” said Gillian Rabalais, holding back tears, before the memorial.
Her husband, Philip Rabalais, served as a helicopter mechanic in the Louisiana National Guard from 2000 to 2006.
“I know half these guys in the crowd. We’re here to grieve and pay our respects,” Philip Rabalais said.
The Rabalaises decided to organize the candlelight memorial for what they say is a tight-knit community and posted plans for the event on Facebook last week.
“This is where these guys work. It’s where they hang out,” Gillian Rabalais said. “It had to happen here.”
As of Sunday afternoon more than 3,200 people had seen the flier on Facebook, she said.
“It’s incredible how many people have turned up. They just keep coming,” Gillian Rabalais said 30 minutes before the service, as hundreds of people had already gathered in the park.
For Paul Zeringue, 26, a specialist in his third year with the National Guard’s 1021st Engineer Company, the memorial was an opportunity to back his fellow servicemen.
“We’re like a family, so we have to support each other,” he said. “I’m here for them.”
Also in attendance were members of the 1-244th Assault Helicopter Battalion in Hammond, which is the unit of the guardsmen who were killed. The somber group arrived dressed in their crisp guard uniforms and quietly released balloon lanterns in memory of their fallen comrades. None of the members would speak to the media.
The state’s National Guard had not released the names of the four guardsmen killed by the time Sunday’s memorial was held, so the names of those being remembered were not mentioned.
The guard has said the bodies of two of the soldiers killed have been recovered and two others were still missing and thought be in the helicopter wreckage. A salvage company was to recover the wreckage by late Saturday, but Guard officials did not return phone calls on Saturday or Sunday, so it was unclear if that occurred.
The Marines have identified their members who were killed.
Even without knowing the identities of those killed, people found ways to remember them.
Lori Banks, a family services worker in Hammond, brought her service dog Hayward because she saw it as a way to provide relief to other grieving community members.
“I think this whole thing shows how short life can be,” she said.
As bagpipes played “Amazing Grace” and members of the crowd recited the Pledge of Allegiance, the guardsmen lit paper lanterns that floated off into the twilight.
Leading the crowd in prayer at the end of the memorial, the Rev. Trent Campbell, of River Rock Church, pointed to a cluster of people, most of whom live in the community.
“You all,” he said. “This is what those men believed in.”
Follow Matt McKinney on Twitter, @Mmckinne17.