Their faces shone from framed photographs, with an empty set of boots and a folded flight suit in front of each image.
On a huge video screen, they were shown dancing at weddings, riding horses, hoisting beers, kayaking rivers, hugging children.
Seven Coast Guard members and two Marines who were lost at sea last week when their aircraft collided above the Pacific Ocean were remembered Friday not only as heroes who risked their lives for others, but also as sons and daughters, parents and friends whose deaths have left holes in many hearts.
More than 2,500 people, including hundreds of members of the Coast Guard "family" from across the nation, gathered to honor the nine fliers in a ceremony at the Coast Guard's air station at McClellan Airport.
"No ceremony is as difficult as this one, in this place, at this time," said Adm. Thad Allen, commandant of the Coast Guard.
"What are we to make of this? We try to understand the unfathomable, and we cannot. We look for answers, and there are none."
On the evening of Oct. 29, the Coast Guard crew based at the Sacramento base went up in a hulking rescue plane to search for a lost boater. The Marines were on a routine helicopter training mission out of Camp Pendleton.
The two aircraft collided and a massive search yielded no survivors. The crash remains under investigation.
Honored on Friday were Lt. Cmdr. Che J. Barnes, 35, of Capay; Lt. Adam W. Bryant, 28, of Crewe, Va.; Chief Petty Officer John F. Seidman, 43, of Stockton; Petty Officer Carl P. Grigonis, 35, of Mayfield Heights, Ohio; Petty Officer Monica L. Beacham, 29, of Decaturville, Tenn.; Petty Officer Jason S. Moletzsky, 26, of Norristown, Pa.; Petty Officer Danny R. Kreder II, 22, of Elm Mott, Texas; Maj. Samuel Leigh, 35, of Kennebec, Maine; and 1st Lt. Thomas Claiborne, 26, of Douglas, Colo.
A large tent constructed for the occasion was filled to capacity with Coast Guard members in formal blue uniforms and crisp white hats, plus representatives of the Marines and other branches of the military, law enforcement officers, and relatives and close friends of the downed fliers. Members of the California Professional Firefighters played mournful bagpipe music, and a Coast Guard band performed "Amazing Grace."
Family members, escorted by the Coast Guard, filed in moments before the service began, many of them tearful, some pushing strollers or carrying young children. They took seats in the front rows and dabbed their eyes with tissues throughout the ceremony.
Outside, a C-130 Hercules plane, similar to the one that the doomed Coast Guard crew boarded on their final mission, sat idle. Earlier in the week, comrades flew such a plane to the disaster area, dropping nine wreaths at the site and offering prayers.
The tragedy has been extremely difficult for Coast Guard members based at the Sacramento air station, as many of them knew the fallen fliers well, said Cmdr. Greg Buxa. The station scaled back operations after the crash but plans to return to full operation next week, he said.
Capt. J.J. O'Connor, commanding officer of the Sacramento station, on Friday offered memories of each of the fallen Coast Guard crew members.
He called Barnes "smart, caring and inspirational. He made us better Coasties, and he made us laugh." Grigonis, whose wife, Kristen, also is a Coast Guard member, was quiet and respectful, he said. Kristen Grigonis is pregnant and the couple have an infant son. Beacham "was a blessing," Barnes said, a leader with an adventurous spirit. She was shown ziplining and surfing on the video screen.
"For the families and crews of Air Station Sacramento, the world stopped turning last Thursday evening," said Skip Bowen, master chief petty officer for the Coast Guard. "In an instant, nine members of two services were gone."
The deaths, said O'Connor, are grim reminders of the dangers of Coast Guard missions, in which crew members travel far and wide "to search for those in need," O'Connor said, "to be that shield."
He asked the mourners to "lift each other up, mindful of our loss but resolved to find joy."
"We will never get over this, but we will get through this," he said. "I am not the same person I was a week ago, but I am renewed, and looking forward."
Capay's Che Barnes remembered at Coast Guard memorial service
After a prayer, the crowd grew silent as Coast Guard planes roared over the tent through somber gray skies.
Then, as taps was played, crew members offered their comrades a final salute.