Published January 19, 2012
WHITE BEAR LAKE, Minn. – From turning out for blood drives to pitching in at homeless shelters, the Minnesota couple missing since last week's cruise ship disaster in Italy could always be counted on to help out, friends say.
As those friends now await the news of Barbara and Jerry Heil's fate, they have turned to each other, and the religious faith the couple so deeply embraced, for support.
"There's always hope. And if we can hope that there's a miracle, we'll keep praying," Mark Peterson, who has known the Heils for years, said as he was walking into a prayer service for the couple Wednesday evening.
"It's like we're family and when some member of your family has a tragedy, you rally around," said Peterson, who was among about 450 who attended the service at the Church of St. Pius X.
The Heils, of White Bear Lake, are the only Americans unaccounted for among the more than 4,200 people aboard the Costa Concordia when it struck a reef Friday near Tuscany. The Heils were listed among the 21 people still missing, according to an official tally released Wednesday by Italian authorities.
Authorities have confirmed that 11 people died. Family members said in a blog posting Wednesday that they have learned the Heils are not among those passengers whose bodies were recently recovered.
Friends have described the Heils as devout Catholics who spend part of almost every day at St. Pius, where Jerry Heil, 69, teaches religious classes and Barbara, 70, hands out baked goods to parishioners. Erickson said the couple joined the church in 1973 and their four children attended its elementary and middle school.
Duane Jabas, who also spoke at Wednesday's service, became choked up as he said he would miss the way Jerry meticulously folded napkins for the parish anti-abortion breakfasts. He said his friend, "manifested the virtue of charity."
"Brother Jerry and Lady Barbara. What a wonderful couple," Jabas said. "If you saw Jerry, Barb was not far behind."
Some family members were present at the vigil, including one of the Heils' granddaughters, Lexi, who spoke during the service. She asked everyone to continue to pray for her grandparents, others affected by the tragedy, and the rescuers.
"My grandparents have such a strong faith and they have shared that with me over the years. They have always been ones to look up to and model myself after," she said.
The church went dark at the end of the nearly hourlong service as those gathered inside lit candles for the Heils -- each person lighting the candle of his or her neighbor until everyone was holding a flame.
In their blog post, family members said they were praying conditions at the Costa Concordia would improve so authorities could resume search operations, which were suspended after the ship shifted slightly on the rocks, creating concerns about the safety of divers and firefighters searching for the missing.
"While it is certainly hard for us to see the recovery efforts stall due to the unstable conditions present at and around the Costa Concordia, we are also very concerned for the safety of the Italian Coast Guard as they continue to put forth a heroic effort in trying to find those who remain missing," the family said in the blog.
In Italy, prosecutors are investigating the ship's captain for manslaughter, abandoning ship and causing a shipwreck after he took an unauthorized detour. The captain, Francesco Schettino, is under house arrest.
Sarah Heil, the couple's daughter, told WBBM radio in Chicago earlier this week that her parents had been looking forward to their 16-day vacation.
"They raised four kids and sent them all to private school, elementary to college, so they never had any money," Sarah Heil said. "So when they retired, they went traveling. And this was to be a big deal -- a 16-day trip. They were really excited about it."