WHITE BEAR LAKE, Minn. (WCCO/AP) — The children of a Minnesota couple missing since last week’s cruise ship disaster in Italy said Wednesday their parents are not among those passengers whose bodies were recently recovered.
Family members posted the information on their blog, and said they were praying that conditions at the Costa Concordia would improve so authorities could resume search operations.
Jerry and Barbara Heil, of White Bear Lake, Minn., are the only Americans unaccounted for among the more than 4,200 people aboard the ship when it struck a reef Friday near Tuscany. Authorities have confirmed 11 people died, but only one has been identified — a 38-year-old crew member from Hungary.
The Heils were listed among the 21 people still missing, according to an official tally released Wednesday by Italian authorities.
Friends, relatives and other supporters held a vigil for the couple Wednesday night, describing them as deeply religious people devoted to charity and volunteering. About 450 people gathered at the Church of St. Pius X, where Jerry and Barbara Heil are active members.
“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 headed into the vigil with his wife.
Some family members were present, including the Heils’ granddaughter, Lexi, who spoke during the vigil, asking 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.
Duane Jabas, who spoke at the service, said the Heils “manifested the virtue of charity, from helping out at blood drives and food shelves to working at pot luck dinners. Jabas became choked up as he spoke about how he would miss the way Jerry meticulously folded napkins for the parish anti-abortion breakfasts.
“Brother Jerry and Lady Barbara. What a wonderful couple,” Jabas said. “If you saw Jerry, Barb was not far behind.”
Paul Petronack, a parishioner, said the vigil was truthful, sincere and fitting of the couple he has known for years.
Italian rescue workers suspended operations early Wednesday after the ship shifted slightly on the rocks, creating concerns about the safety of divers and firefighters searching for the missing. The Heils’ children, who had been waiting to hear the identities of five bodies recovered Tuesday, said on their blog that they received confirmation that their parents were not among them.
“We continue to pray and hope for advantageous conditions which will allow the search and rescue operations to continue,” the Heil family said on the blog. “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.
“We are grateful to all of those who are working so hard to find our parents,” the statement said.
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.
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.”
The Church of St. Pius X plans to dedicate masses this weekend to the Heil’s and offer prayers for them, too.
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