With Heils found, family can move forward

Italian officials identified bodies of White Bear Lake couple on cruise ship that sank in January.

The White Bear Lake husband and wife who died in the wreck of an Italian cruise ship in January have been identified as being among five victims whose remains were recovered last month.

The bodies of retired couple Gerald and Barbara Heil were identified using DNA, said the prefect's office from the Tuscan town of Grosseto.

With the Heils identified, "we will now be able to move forward and bring them home to rest," their four adult children said in a posting on a blog they have maintained since a few days after the ship ran aground. 

"The rescue and recovery crew on the island of Giglio have been relentless in their mission to find the missing and have given us hope through this whole process," the posting added. "We cannot thank them enough for continuing to risk their lives in an effort to find our parents."

The U.S. Embassy in Rome declined to discuss plans for return of the Heils' remains but said in a statement that it "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."

Of the 32 confirmed dead, two victims -- an Italian passenger and an Indian crewman -- have yet to be found from the wreck of the Costa Concordia in shallow waters off the coast of Tuscany.

The five bodies were all found in spaces between the hull and the seabed, according to the Italian Civil Protection agency.

Gerald Heil, who would have celebrated his 70th birthday Sunday, had retired as director of the Agriculture Marketing and Development Division of the state Department of Agriculture, where he started in 1979.

He and Barbara, 70, were both longtime parishioners and active volunteers at St. Pius X Catholic Church in White Bear Lake.

Gerald taught Bible studies and religious education classes, helped with breakfasts and bingo, and most recently was coordinating the church's February Festival. He also built the church's website.

Barbara handed out baked goods to parishioners and also volunteered at the Dorothy Day Center homeless shelter.

At Tuesday morning's mass at St. Pius X, led by the Rev. Fernando Ortega, several parishioners prayed for the Lord to receive the Heils.

"We were grateful for the children" after hearing the news, said Audrey McKoskey, a longtime friend of the Heils who offered her prayers at the church.

McKoskey met Barbara Heil 30 years ago when they volunteered together in the St. Pius X school library. "We got to see them every day, and now we don't," McKoskey said.

"There is an empty space now. They dedicated their time and energy to serve the Lord. They are with the Lord."

The Rev. John Mitchell, the Heils' priest for the past six years, said that the identification of the remains helps the family "know what did happen."

"You keep waiting for news, you keep waiting and wondering: Will they be found?" added Mitchell, who now serves Immaculate Conception Church in Columbia Heights. "This answers those questions. At the end of the day, you are left with the fact that Jerry and Barb are gone."

Mitchell said that the news also can be healing for the church where the Heils worshiped, socialized and committed their lives to serving.

"I think it's a mixture of sadness ... but also some relief to know that Jerry and Barb are now at rest," he said, "that they did in fact die on the ship, that their remains were found, and there's no doubt what happened to them."

The Italian news agency ANSA said that the other three whose recovered bodies have been identified are Germans Christina Mathi Ganz and Norbert Josef Ganz, and Italian musician Giuseppe Girolamo, who reportedly gave up his place on a departing lifeboat to a child.

The Costa Concordia, with more than 4,200 aboard, struck a reef on Jan. 13 three hours into what was to be a 16-day cruise.

pwalsh@startribune.com • 612-673-4482 harlow@startribune.com • 651-925-5039

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