WHITE BEAR LAKE, Minn. – The only Americans lost in last month's Italian cruise ship disaster were remembered Saturday as a faithful couple and loving grandparents who spent their final moments as they had much of their lives: together.
A memorial Mass for Jerry and Barb Heil drew hundreds of people to the couple's longtime Minnesota church in White Bear Lake, a suburb of St. Paul. The Heils are among 15 people still listed as missing from the Costa Concordia, which rammed a reef near a Tuscan island and capsized Jan. 13.
"After a tragedy such as this, it's normal for us to feel a little empty," their son, Nathan Heil, said during a service that also featured readings and prayers by several of the Heils' grandchildren. "But things will get better with time, mom and dad would always say, and usually they were right."
Friends and family recalled the couple's strong bond to each other, their four children and 14 grandchildren, and their deep and unwavering commitment to their Catholic faith. Their son also told mourners that he was glad his parents weren't suffering and were together at the end of their lives.
Thirty-two people are believed to have perished in the cruise ship accident, including the Heils and 13 other people who have not been found. Italian authorities stopped searching the ship at the end of January due to dangerous conditions, a decision that Heil family members said was disappointing but which they accepted.
Italian prosecutors are investigating the ship's captain, Francesco Schettino, for possible criminal charges, including allegedly abandoning his ship before all passengers and crew were evacuated.
The Heils' children had said their parents embarked on their overseas trip after years spent raising their children and paying for their educations.
Photo collages of the couple — one picture showing Jerry bobbing for apples, another with Barb roasting a hot dog at a campfire — were strewn across the foyer of St. Pius the X, where the couple had worshiped since 1973. A handmade poster featured written memories from their grandchildren: "Grandma's cinnamon rolls," ''Grandpa's stories and pictures from his trips," ''Painting with grandpa and grandma."
Nathan Heil said his 70-year-old mother and 69-year-old father, who was retired from a longtime job with the Minnesota Department of Agriculture, had health struggles in recent years but he called them "survivors."
The Rev. John Mitchell, who was lead pastor at St. Pius the X until recently, knew the couple for six years and returned to lead the memorial Mass. He said both dedicated untold hours to the church but approached their faith in different ways: Jerry liked to study and teach faith, "and he expressed himself through intellectual understanding," while his wife used it to serve the less fortunate.
"Mom favored the underdog, and it was something I learned from her," Nathan Heil said. "Anyone having a hard time was someone she felt for especially."
Mitchell said the tragic circumstances of the Heils' death raises the age-old, difficult question: "Why did this have to happen?" He said there's no an easy answer, but that God's hand could be seen in the outpouring of love and support for the Heils' children and may have been there in the couple's last moments alive.
"Most importantly they were together — never having left each other's side," he said.