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Gerald and Barbara Heil

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Italian authorities have decided that the Costa Concordia is too precariously perched on a reef for search and recovery operations to continue.

Pier Paolo Cito, Associated Press

John Heil, son of Barbara and Gerald Heil, stood in the harbor of the Tuscan island of Giglio, Italy, late last month as operations continued then to find victims of the cruise ship disaster.

Pier Paolo Cito, Associated Press

Family of White Bear Lake couple plans memorial service

  • Article by: TIM HARLOW and MARY LYNN SMITH
  • Star Tribune
  • February 1, 2012 - 9:50 AM

Hope faded into acceptance Tuesday, as the family of a White Bear Lake couple missing in the Italian cruise ship disaster said they would begin planning a memorial service for Gerald and Barbara Heil.

"We are certainly disheartened ... but understand and accept the decision to bring the search operation to a halt," the family said in a blog update posted late Tuesday afternoon. "As we struggle to come to grips with this tragedy, we find comfort knowing Mom and Dad are now in a better place free from any worries. They have always been obedient to God's plan and now we must do the same."

Italian rescue officials said a formal decision to call off the search is expected Wednesday. The liner Costa Concordia slammed into a reef Jan. 13 off the island of Giglio; at least 17 people were killed and 16 are still missing. The ship, which carried more than 4,200 passengers and crew, lies at a steep angle on rocks in relatively shallow water off the Italian coast.

Italian authorities say conditions have become too dangerous for rescuers to continue working. Search operations have been suspended briefly several times before, when the ship shifted slightly on its rocky resting place, only to be resumed later. This time, the agency said, safety conditions for the underwater search had been "objectively" reduced, suggesting a more persistent problem.

News that the search was being suspended spread rapidly Tuesday among the Heils' friends, who had realized last week that the rescue operation had evolved into a recovery operation, said Duane Jabas, a family friend. "There are many sad eyes here," he said. "I haven't had a day when I haven't had a tear in my eye since I found out when the news came out on that Sunday."

Relatives, friends and even strangers have held vigils at St. Pius X Church in White Bear Lake, where the Heils had been members for 37 years. Gerald, 69, a former state employee, and Barbara, 70, a cancer survivor, were "silent leaders" who were always willing to give their time but never sought recognition in return.

"They were such caring and giving people," Jabas said. "It's hard to think that I won't see Jerry and Barbara anymore. Wherever Jerry was, Barb was close by. ... Throughout life we meet many people, but there are some that stand out above the others. And, definitely, the Heils stood out above others."

It was their charisma and their leadership, Jabas said. "But always the wonderful smile and hello whenever we were greeting at the morning mass. Jerry definitely exemplified the meaning of 'gentleman.'"

Gerald taught Bible studies and religious education classes, helped out with breakfasts and bingo, and most recently was coordinating the church's February Festival. He built the church's website and was involved in events such as Walk for Life and the Metro Area Paintathon. He was "a meticulous note taker for the Knights of Columbus," Jabas said.

Barbara, who was never far from his side, handed out baked goods to parishioners. She also volunteered at the Dorothy Day Center.

"It was always family first, but they bent over backwards and gave freely of their time," said friend Dennis Bechel. "This is hard to accept. It's like losing part of your family, the church family. Without a doubt, they will be missed."

Gerald was director of the Agriculture Marketing and Development Division of the Minnesota Department of Agriculture, where he started in 1979. "He was a good mentor, very fair and supportive of his staff," said Mary Hanks, whom Gerald hired 15 years ago and who took over as department director when Gerald retired in 2006.

Gerald had a keen sense of humor and was quick with a quote from Mark Twain, Harry Truman or his favorite comic strip, "Dilbert," Hanks said.

The Heils joined St. Pius X in 1973 and sent their four children to the church's elementary and middle school, said Larry Erickson, parish administrator.

Family members said Gerald and Barbara had been looking forward to the 16-day cruise, which ended just three hours after they boarded the ship.

"They raised four kids and sent them all to private school, elementary to college, so they never had any money," Sarah Heil told WBBM radio in Chicago shortly after the accident happened. "So when they retired, they went traveling. And this was to be a big deal, a trip they were really excited about."

The family's statement in its most recent blog post thanks rescuers for all their efforts. "Time and time again, the rescuers faced many perils in the hopes of reuniting the missing with their families," the statement says. "We will be forever grateful for all those who worked so hard for people they did not even know, yet understood how important their job was for those that remained, waiting for news."

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

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