About a dozen people clutched solar-powered candles as they stood together in the lobby of the Louisiana Office of Motor Vehicles building on Independence Boulevard on Saturday.
They were all relatives of people killed in crashes caused by impaired drivers. One by one, they stated the names of the victims, which the small audience then repeated, and switched on their candles.
Mothers Against Drunk Driving holds this ceremony every December with the goal of encouraging people to not drink and drive — a message organizers say is particularly important this time of year, when there is an abundance of holiday parties and other gatherings where alcohol is served.
Drivers under the influence of alcohol or drugs caused crashes that killed 225 people last year in Louisiana, according to MADD Louisiana program director Valerie Barze-Cox. Such incidents are "100 percent preventable," she said.
"MADD is not against anyone over the age of 21 drinking," Barze-Cox said. Rather, the organization wants people to "always, always have a plan in place before you take that first drink. Have a designated driver. We have Uber, taxis. We just ask that you have something in place."
In the OMV lobby, MADD had set up a Christmas tree decorated with dozens of photos of drunken driving crash victims from Louisiana. Chaunda Allen Mitchell, director of drug policy for Gov. John Bel Edwards, described the display as a "sobering reminder" of lost potential that could have benefitted communities across the state.
"We feel their loss every day," she said.
So do victims' families and friends. On Saturday, some of them wiped away tears as they looked at pictures on the tree.
Among those at the ceremony was Delia Gaines Brady, who spoke about what she calls the worst day of her life — May 30, 2012, when a drunken driver crashed head-on into the vehicle several of her relatives were riding in, setting off a series of heartbreaking events.
Brady's mother, sister, two of her sister's children and a family friend died instantly in the wreck, which happened as they drove back to Baton Rouge from a church service in East Feliciana Parish.
Two of Brady's nephews were taken from the scene to the hospital, where both died within a few days. And in 2014, on the second anniversary of the crash, another of her nephews — a 15-year-old — shot and killed himself.
"Drunk drivers and impaired drivers, they don't realize (when) they kill someone ... the families are left to deal with it," Brady said, standing near a large painting depicting her relatives who died.
She said the drunken driver, Brett Gerald, had prior DWI arrests.
Louisiana’s highest court on Friday let stand Brett Gerald’s 35-year prison sentence in a 2012 alcohol-related crash near Slaughter that kille…
"There was probably plenty of times he could have killed someone," Brady said. "It's just this time, it was my family coming home from church. ... Maybe my family had to be that person to get him off the road, to keep him from killing someone else."
She urged people to call the police if they see someone driving while impaired, and to get help for loved ones who abuse drugs or alcohol. She also praised MADD for offering support to her family and others coping with the aftermath of impaired driving crashes.
In addition to those killed by drunken drivers, many more are injured. In Louisiana, someone is hurt in such a wreck about once every three hours, said Katara Williams, executive director of the state Highway Safety Commission.
"It only takes one bad decision to impact the lives of so many," she said.
Sgt. Mickey Duncan, a Baton Rouge police officer and 13-year veteran of the department's DWI task force, told of a recent episode he said he hoped would underscore the message of Saturday's ceremony.
About a week before Thanksgiving, Duncan was called to the scene where a drunken driver had wrecked on the way home from a party. His passenger, a 20-year-old LSU student from Colorado, was seriously injured and is still in the hospital.
Duncan said the man driving has not been arrested but remains under investigation.
A brain surgeon initially told Duncan the victim wasn't likely to survive. The sergeant had to call the young woman's parents and break the news.
"It wasn't easy," Duncan said, then grew silent for a few seconds.
"Nobody," he added, "wants to get that call."