WEST CHESTER, Pa. – A dedicated weight lifter and amateur comedian, Nicholas Berg (search) had a desire to help people around the world.
The 26-year-old from suburban Philadelphia liked to move around so much that he took classes at four universities, and once traveled to Africa to help a village, returning with only the clothes on his back.
Friends and family on Tuesday remembered Berg, who was killed by his captors in Iraq, as generous, outgoing and funny.
"Some of the hardest laughter I had at the fitness center were from the jokes he told," said friend Nick Fillioe, a sports director at the West Chester Area YMCA.
Berg's latest adventure was an independent trip to Iraq, looking for work rebuilding the country's telecommunications infrastructure.
He went to Baghdad in March seeking work with a company that had previously hired him, but was told there wasn't a post this time. His trip home hit a snag when he was detained at a checkpoint. He was released April 6, and his parents last heard from him three days later.
A video posted Tuesday on a Web site linked to Al Qaeda showed Berg beheaded by a group that said it was to avenge the abuse of Iraqi prisoners by American soldiers.
When told by a reporter about the Web site, Berg's father, brother and sister cried in their front yard.
"I knew he was decapitated before," said Berg's father, Michael Berg. "That manner is preferable to a long and torturous death. But I didn't want it to become public."
Berg's body was returned in the United States and there will be a private memorial Friday, said Carl Goldstein of Goldsteins' Rosenberg's Raphael-Sacks funeral home. He didn't elaborate, but authorities had said earlier Wednesday that the body was to be flown to the military mortuary at Dover Air Force Base (search) in Deleware.
Family members "were very happy that Nick was back in the United States," Goldstein said.
Berg's body was expected to arrive Wednesday at a military base in Dover, Delaware, a U.S. military spokesman in Iraq told The Associated Press.
In Washington, White House spokesman Scott McClellan said Wednesday that President Bush "expresses his deepest condolences to Nicholas Berg's family. ... As his family and friends have said, Nick Berg wanted to build a free Iraq for the Iraqi people and he was an innocent civilian seeking to help."
Berg attended Cornell, Drexel, the University of Pennsylvania and the University of Oklahoma, though he never earned a college degree. He helped set up electronics equipment at the Republican National Convention in Philadelphia in 2000. He made several trips to developing countries; in Ghana, he taught villagers how to make bricks, and returned emaciated because he gave away most of his food, his father said.
"That's the kind of passion we're dealing with here," Michael Berg said.
Berg's father said his son was a practicing Jew and that "there's a better chance than not" that his captors knew it. "If there was any doubt that they were going to kill him, that probably clinched it, I'm guessing," he said.
Berg, who was unmarried, owned a small business that worked with communication equipment like radio towers. He saw his trip to Iraq, his father said, as an adventure — one that fit his ideology as a war supporter and backer of the Bush administration.
Berg played the tuba and saxophone, was in the National Honor Society (search) and participated in the Science Olympiad (search), said Michael Dibartolomeo, who was principal at West Chester Henderson High School (search) when Berg graduated in 1996.
"I will tell you that you will not find a nicer young man than Nick Berg," Dibartolomeo said.
Berg was in Baghdad from late December to Feb. 1 and had returned to Iraq in March, his family said. Having trouble finding work on the second trip, Nick Berg told his parents that he would return home March 30. But he was detained by Iraqi police at a checkpoint in Mosul on March 24. At some point during his 13-day detention, U.S. officials took custody of him, his father said, and he was not allowed to make phone calls or contact a lawyer.
FBI agents visited Berg's parents in West Chester on March 31 and told the family they were trying to confirm their son's identity. On April 5, the Bergs sued the government in federal court in Philadelphia, contending that their son was being held illegally.
Berg was released the next day, and he told his parents he had not been mistreated. They did not hear from him after April 9.
"They could have released him a week earlier, and that would have been the difference," his father said, referring to the upsurge in violence in the country in early April.
In Baghdad on Wednesday, Dan Senor, spokesman for the U.S.-led Coalition Provisional Authority (search), said that to his knowledge, Berg "was at no time under the jurisdiction or detention of coalition forces." Senor would not specify why Iraqi police, who generally take direction from coalition authorities, had arrested him and held him for some time. He said the investigation was continuing.
The family was in seclusion Wednesday and not taking calls, his sister Sara Berg had said.
Berg's YMCA friends said he worked out and swam several times a week and was interested in power lifting.
Gina Taliani, the YMCA's aquatics and gymnastics director, said Berg loved to swim, but his muscular body made it difficult for him.
"I always joked with him that he sunk like a rock because he was pure muscle," she said. "The biggest thing I remember is laughing and joking together."