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Minnesota Couple Missing In Italian Ship Disaster

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MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO/AP) — The two Americans missing in an Italian cruise ship disaster were identified Monday as a retired couple from Minnesota who had been eagerly looking forward to their European vacation.

Family members issued a statement Monday confirming that Jerry Heil, 69, and his wife Barbara, 70, of White Bear Lake, a suburb of St. Paul, are the two Americans missing in the wreck of the Costa Concordia.

The Italian Coast Guard raised the number of people missing to 29.

The Heils are longtime members at their church in White Bear Lake, St. Pius X. Church members dedicated their 8 a.m. Monday morning mass to the Heils, as they continue to pray for good news.

“There’s always someone here praying, 24 hours a day, around the clock hoping we’ll find them,” said Dennis Bechel, a friend of the Heils.

Members of the church said before he retired, Jerry Heil worked at the University of Minnesota in the agriculture department. They say both are avid gardeners.

“To have a tragedy like this when you’re expecting them back and you don’t know what’s gonna happen or if you’re ever going to see them, I can feel that very deeply,” Bechel said.

They described the couple as very kind and selfless people with a deep history at the church.

“He didn’t ask for a lot of recognition for what he did. He was the silent leader,” said Duane Jabas, a friend of Jerry.

The ship capsized Friday night off Tuscany. Six people are confirmed dead and prosecutors are investigating the ship’s captain for manslaughter, abandoning ship and causing a shipwreck. The ship’s owner says the captain, Francesco Schettino, caused the crash by deviating from the authorized course.

Rescue operations were on hold Monday as rough seas buffeted the Costa Concordia.

“We are waiting patiently for the rescuers to safely try to find our parents,” the Heil family said in the statement. “Our prayers and thoughts are with our parents; those others that are still missing and their families; and the brave rescuers. We are working closely with the U.S. Embassy in Italy and are confident that everything is being done to find our parents.”

The statement said the family would have no further comment until they have new information from authorities. Friends are still holding out hope that the two have survived.

“Not knowing is certainly the biggest thing in our lives,” said Jabas.

A family spokesman gave the statement to The Associated Press outside the home of Aaron Heil, a son of the couple, in Albertville, a Minneapolis suburb.

Several family members did not respond to phone calls from AP Sunday and Monday. Sarah Heil, a daughter of the couple, told WBBM radio in Chicago that her retired 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.”

(TM and © Copyright 2012 CBS Radio Inc. and its relevant subsidiaries. CBS RADIO and EYE Logo TM and Copyright 2012 CBS Broadcasting Inc. Used under license. All Rights Reserved.This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. The Associated Press contributed to this report.)

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