Shipwrecked: A vigil and an escape

As a family waits for missing, sisters speak of fleeing ship

Days after escaping the sinking Italian cruise liner, a Lakeville woman and her sister are back in Minnesota grieving for lives lost and hoping for those still missing, including a White Bear Lake couple.

Authorities on Wednesday said rough seas had forced them to suspend the search for the 21 people still missing in the wreckage of the cruise ship that capsized in the Mediterranean Sea, killing at least 11. But at a candlelight service at St. Pius X Catholic Church Wednesday night, family and friends of Gerald and Barbara Heil prayed that the couple will be found alive.

"There is always hope," said Molly Franta, a longtime friend of the family.

"Your prayers have made a big difference," granddaughter Lexi Heil told more than 500 people. "We ask you to continue to pray. Thank you for your prayers and support."

Parishioners have held an around-the-clock prayer vigil since Sunday.

"We hope the family can draw strength from this," said Mayor Jo Emerson, who does not know the family.

Ronda Rosenthal also doesn't know the Heils and didn't cross paths with them during the brief hours they all spent aboard the Costa Concordia last week.

"They could still be alive," said Rosenthal, who returned to her Lakeville home Wednesday, along with her sister, Vivian Shafer. "But supposedly they cleared all the upper decks that were up out of the water. I fear for them."

"It just breaks your heart," said Shafer, who arranged the weeklong Mediterranean cruise as a break from her Army tour in Afghanistan. "We were just so lucky."

The two sisters arrived in Rome last week and boarded the ship on Jan. 13 -- Friday the 13th, Rosenthal pointed out.

After a bite to eat, Shafer took a nap because she wasn't feeling well. Rosenthal walked around the ship, noticing where the life jackets were stored and the lifeboats located. The two had been on cruises before and noticed that this ship's crew hadn't gone through the usual spiel about safety precautions. Instead, passengers were given a "sales pitch" about the excursions along the cruise.

Neither was alarmed. The boat was big and it felt safe.

But not long after dinner, Shafer looked out their cabin window and noticed the lights from shore seemed rather close. The waves kicked up by the ship seemed unusually large. Either the seas were unusually rough or they were in shallow water, they surmised.

"It was actually sort of pretty," Shafer said.

They thought little of it as they went to a magic show, complete with smoke and lights.

And then the ship shuddered and a scraping sound filled the room. "The boat seemed to go into a hard left and the curtain on stage hung at an angle," Shafer said. "I thought, 'Oh my gosh,'" Shafer said. But the two figured it was all part of the magic act because there was no announcement from the crew. But at least one Italian couple left in a hurry, Shafer said. Then the magician disappeared and the audience began to filter out of the room.

"Ronda said 'I guess the magic show is over,'" Shafer said.

In a Speedo and a life jacket

On their way to the cabin, the sisters noticed a man wearing a Speedo and a life jacket. Others came out of their cabins in pajamas and life jackets. But crew members assured the passengers that the ship was only experiencing a small technical problem. The emergency lighting was on in the hallway and the steward assured them: "No worry."

Rosenthal and Shafer picked up the cabin items that had fallen to the floor and got ready for bed in the dark.

And then the curtains in their room shifted and the boat listed at least 30 degrees to the right. Announcements from the crew on behalf of the captain continued to assure passengers that "everything is OK."

But within minutes, it was clear something was very wrong when a crew member announced: "Man lifeboat three and then muster station four."

It is not OK

Shafer, who had served in the Navy before joining the Army, knew immediately that meant trouble. The sisters quickly grabbed warm clothes and then their life jackets.

When Shafer looked around a corner and noticed people in lifeboats, "I thought, 'This is serious,'" she said. No one from the crew seemed to be taking charge or directing the evacuation, she added. Instead, passengers fended for themselves. Rosenthal and her sister jumped in a lifeboat where they had to sit in the bottom.

Once on shore, the sisters huddled for warmth in an island church. Back in the United States, they're grappling with the tragedy. "We're getting more and more disgusted," Shafer said. "If they would have told people maybe people wouldn't have panicked much," Shafer said. "But to be telling people that everything is OK and it's obvious now that the floor is at an angle -- it's not OK."

mlsmith@startribune.com • 612-673-4788 harlow@startribune.com • 651-925-5039

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