As the sun sunk 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 Rabaliases decided to organize the candlelight memorial and posted it on Facebook last week, which as of Sunday afternoon showed more than 3,200 people had seen the flier for the event.
“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.
Members of the 1-244th Assault Helicopter Battalion, which is the unit of the guardsmen who were killed, attended the vigil. The somber group arrived dressed in their uniforms and released balloon lanterns in memory of those killed. None of the members would speak to the media.
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.”
The Louisiana Army National Guard had not released the names of the four Hammond guardsmen killed. The recovery of the helicopter wrapped up late Saturday.
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, National 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.