LIVINGSTON -- Edith Carlin was braiding her daughter’s hair when she heard the news.
Carolyn Hatcher and her husband were on the way back from Arizona when they got the phone call, parked their motorhome at a roadside park, and turned on the television. They had to see for themselves.
Sheriff Jason Ard, then a S.W.A.T. commander, was getting his driver’s license renewed when he glanced at the small television in the corner, unable to pull his eyes away from what was happening on the screen.
Superintendent Joe Murphy, then the principal at Southside Junior High, was walking the halls when a teacher poked her head out the door. You need to come see this, she told him, motioning toward the television that replayed clips of airplanes hitting the World Trade Center in New York City 18 years ago.
“I was thinking, ‘There’s no way this could be real,’” Murphy recalled. “Unfortunately, it was real.”
Memories of what happened Sept. 11, 2001, were brought to the forefront on Wednesday, when a group of 100 or so people gathered inside the Livingston Parish Council Chambers for the annual “Cry Out America” ceremony.
There was hardly an empty seat as people of all ages — including some who weren’t even alive at the time — came to honor the more than 3,000 people who died during a series of coordinated terrorist attacks in New York City and Washington, D.C. It remains the deadliest act of terrorism to ever hit the United States.
The ceremony featured speeches, prayers, and songs from several local officials, pastors, and community leaders. The theme for the year’s ceremony was “Love One Another.”
The “Cry Out America” ceremony has been held every year in Livingston Parish since 2008, when Hatcher and two others organized the first one in a small room in the old parish courthouse. It moved to the Council Chambers two years later, and has been held there ever since.
Much planning goes into organizing the event, but Hatcher said it’s important to continue the work.
“We do this to pray for our parish, for our nation and to remember,” she said. “We need to remember. We need these young people to remember. We need to know what went on in our history. It’s important. And then we need the prayer for our nation.”
The program started with a couple of songs performed by Carlin, who before the ceremony recalled how she experienced that quiet Tuesday morning in 2001.
Standing in her living room, Carlin was putting her 4-year-old daughter’s hair in pigtails when they turned on the news. After seeing the airplane hit the second tower, Carlin said one thought entered her mind.
“I was just standing there thinking, ‘America has changed forever,’” she said. “It makes me emotional thinking about it. Everything just stopped, and none of us could believe this had happened to us.”
At one point, Carlin said her daughter, not fully grasping what was going on, asked why the plane hit the building.
“I think I told her, ‘I don’t know,’” Carlin recalled. “It was the only thing I could say. No one knew what was going on this day.”
After Carlin finished singing, Hatcher thanked the guests for coming and spent a few minutes reading a history of that unforgettable day. For most in the room, they didn’t need reminding of what happened.
They can still remember when American Airlines Flight 11 struck the North Tower at 8:45 a.m., before its 110 floors collapsed at 10:28 a.m.
They remember when United Airlines Flight 175 crashed into the South Tower at 9:03 a.m. and its collapse less than an hour later.
They remember when 125 people died after American Airlines Flight 77 hit the Pentagon at 9:37 a.m.
And they still remember when United Airlines Flight 93 crashed into a field in Pennsylvania at 10:03 a.m., after passengers and crew attempted to regain control of their plane from the hijackers and died in the effort.
That last one has always stuck with Josie Purvis, a senior at Holden High who performed the national anthem and “Proud to be an American” during the ceremony.
Purvis, 16, was born in September 2002, more than a year after the 9/11 attacks. But she’s watched enough documentaries and read enough on the subject to get a feel for how that day was experienced by those who lived through it.
“It doesn’t look real,” Purvis said. “At least that’s how it feels. It just feels unreal... but it actually happened. It’s like watching a horror movie.”
Denham Springs Mayor Gerard Landry, who served as the master of ceremonies, said he remembers “exactly where I was” when he first learned of the 9/11 attacks. “Like the moon landing, Hurricane Katrina, or the assassinations of President John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr.,” it’s something he can never forget.
Landry was on his hands and knees cutting boxes and stocking shelves at his grocery store when he overheard someone saying, "Have you heard what happened?" His wife Marian then pulled out her iPad and turned on the news, and everyone huddled around the tiny screen.
That’s when they saw.
“It was a devastating thing,” he recalled. “We saw one plane hit, then we saw the other plane hit, and then the one crashing in the field, and we were just asking, ‘My God, when is this gonna stop?’ There was nothing we could do.”
“At that moment, you see how precious life is and how quickly it can be taken away,” he said. “That was 3,000 people who were totally innocent, but they all lost their lives.”
Approximately 2,997 civilians reportedly lost their lives that day, in addition to 343 firefighters, 60 police officers, and eight paramedics.
Livingston Parish Sheriff’s Deputy Jason Hunt, who read the “Tribute to the Fallen,” grew emotional when he talked about the first responders “who sacrificed their lives running toward the danger, not from it.”
Hunt was in geography class at Walker High when he heard the news, but he said seeing the first responders in action solidified what he wanted to do with his life.
“That morning, I said to myself, ‘I will defend this country in any way possible,’” he told those in attendance. “And I stand before y’all loving what I do for the last nine years of my life. I wake up every morning thankful that I get to do this.”
Murphy was one of the last people to speak during the ceremony, and he shared his memories of that day and the days after. He talked about his memories of students “voluntarily gathered at the flagpole every morning to pray for our country and for the fallen,” something he said had “a dramatic impact on me.”
“Through the resolve of our people here in the United States… we have overcome,” Murphy said. “But we should never ever forget what happened on that day. It’s important for us to remember this for our children. These children need to know the impact events have on their lives and the lives around them.”
Other city and parish officials who spoke during the ceremony were Livingston Parish President Layton Ricks, Livingston Parish Sheriff Jason Ard, Judge Beth Wolfe, Rep. Valarie Hodges, and retired Lt. Col. Arthur Perkins.
Ministers included Rev. Constance Saizon of Hughes and St. Landry UMC, Rev. Willis Easley of Christ’s Community Church, and Rev. Mike DiMaria of Fellowship of Christian Athletes.
The ceremony also included music from sisters Emily and Ella Otken of Denham Springs as well as Michael Rheams of Remnant of God Church in Christ, who performed a rousing rendition of “Battle Hymn of the Republic.”
Other participating groups included students from Southland Christian Academy in Denham Springs and the color guard from Denham Springs High School Marine Corps JROTC under retired Lt. Col. Ronald Bias.