The U.S. Embassy in Italy has put out a worldwide alert on Facebook for help in finding an elderly Minnesota couple who are among the few people still missing from the cruise ship that capsized this weekend.
Gerald Heil, 69, and his wife Barbara, 70, are the retired parents of four children and grandparents to 15 children. Their church in White Bear Lake, Minn., is holding a 24 hour prayer vigil and saying masses for the missing couple and their family.
“The U.S. Embassy is reporting 120 Americans were on the ship,” daughter Sarah Kim Heil wrote on Facebook referring to the capsized cruise ship Costa Concordia. “Two have been unaccounted for. Those two are my parents.”
The alert put by the U.S. embassy on Facebook, written in Italian and English, includes a photograph of the retirees and asks anyone with information regarding their whereabouts to email ItalyConcordiaUSC@state.gov .
Friends say Barbara and Jerry Heil had dreamed of their 16 day vacation and European cruise for a long time. But it has been three days since the massive cruise ship struck a rock and capsized, three days of terrifying silence for those who know and love the Heils.
Outside the suburban Minneapolis home of one of the Heil’s sons, a family spokesman released a statement saying, “We are waiting patiently for the rescuers to safely try to find our parents. 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 US Embassy in Italy and are confident that everything is being done to find our parents. ”
Family members have asked for privacy, but Sarah Heil told Chicago radio station WBBM, “They raised four kids and sent them all to private school, elementary to college, so they never had any money… 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 couple is well known in their neighborhood, and their church, where they attended mass every morning. Barbara Heil is a devoted member of a daily prayer group called the Rosary Club.
“They’re such a team,” said Dr. Larry Erickson, director of operations at the Church of St. Pius X, the Catholic parish the Heil’s have attended for the past 38 years. “You never see a cross look from them. They are always smiling, always gentle.”
Erickson said the Heils are quiet leaders in this parish of 1,500 families. Jerry Heil helped build the church web site, and is a member of the Knights of Columbus. Barbara Heil frequently volunteers in the church’s social ministry, cooking and delivering food to the needy. The couple also taught classes on “faith formation” to young parishioners.
“They lead in such a way that they touched so many, without leaving a fingerprint,” said Erickson.
Neighbors have described the Heils as the retired couple they hope to someday become. Jerry Heil is an avid gardener, and his wife would often share fudge and baked goods with her neighbors.
As search crews and divers search for the missing, the Heil’s neighbors and fellow parishioners hold on to hope and prayer.
“Everybody has got a place in their heart and are still praying and hoping they’ll be found alive and well, ” said Erickson.