US victims of cruise ship accident in Italy identified

The remains of a Minnesota couple who died when a cruise ship capsized in Italy were publicly identified Tuesday, several weeks after the bodies were found in the wreck of the Costa Concordia and two months after their family held a memorial service.

Barbara and Gerald Heil, of White Bear Lake, were the only Americans who died in the Jan. 13 accident. Thirty-two people died when the luxury liner struck a reef and capsized off the Tuscan island of Giglio.

The Heil family issued a statement that thanked searchers for finding the couple, known for their strong Catholic faith.

"We will now be able to move forward and bring them home to rest," the statement said. The family also thanked friends and others for encouraging them through the ordeal, and urged people to remember the families of two people that are still missing.

"We know our parents are together and are happy," the statement concluded. "We look forward to the day when we can all be together again."

The U.S. Embassy in Rome, citing privacy concerns, declined to discuss plans for returning the Heils' remains to the United States, but posted a condolence message.

"We are grateful for the skill and courage of the Italian search teams who made such an effort to first rescue and then recover remains of the victims," the message said. "The entire U.S. Embassy would like to once again extend its condolences to the Heil family and to the friends and families of all the victims of this tragedy."

Friends of the Heils said Tuesday that they were relieved to hear their bodies had finally been identified.

The Heils were active, longtime members of St. Pius the X Catholic Church in White Bear Lake, a St. Paul suburb, and the Feb. 18 memorial Mass drew hundreds of people.

Barbara, 70, and Jerry, 69, were remembered then as a faithful couple and loving grandparents who spent their final moments as they had much of their lives -- together. Jerry Heil was retired from a longtime job with the Minnesota Department of Agriculture.

Audrey McKoskey, of White Bear Lake, said Tuesday that she knew the Heils for about 35 years. She was among the parishioners who prayed for the Heils on Tuesday morning at daily Mass -- they regularly have been named during prayers since the accident.

McKoskey didn't learn that their bodies had been identified until just after Mass and she doubts many other worshippers knew either.

"It's been a tough couple of months and so I'm sure their family is grateful that this coming to a close," McCoskey said. "All of us at St. Pius have been blessed by their presence and grateful to have known them."

Jeanie Muller, of White Bear Lake, was in a rosary group with Barbara Heil that brought some 15 to 18 people together every Tuesday for prayer and fellowship. She said group members' faith helped them "tremendously" as they mourned the loss of their friends.

"We were very saddened and we've always been hopeful that their bodies would be found," Muller said.

Parishoner Dennis Hardy said he had lost his drivers' license for health reasons around Christmas, and Jerry Heil had promised to drive him on errands after he got back from the cruise.

Hardy, of Maplewood, said he began keeping a box of newspaper clippings right after the disaster, hoping to give it to them if they survived. Now he now plans to turn the collection -- which also includes the program from their memorial service -- into a scrapbook.

"It's now nice to know that we can probably have closure and know that they're safely in the hands of God," Hardy said.

Also identified Tuesday were Christina Mathi Ganz and Norbert Josef Ganz of Muehlheim am Main, Germany, and crew member Giuseppe Girolamo. The bodies of two people still haven't been found -- an Italian woman and an Indian crewman -- and both are presumed dead.

Capt. Francesco Schettino is under house arrest in his home near Naples while prosecutors investigate him and other ship and cruise line officials. Schettino is being investigated for alleged manslaughter, causing a shipwreck and abandoning the ship before all the 4,200 passengers and crew were evacuated.