Final hours marked by family drama

Sun National Staff

PINELLAS PARK, Fla. - The final 15 minutes of Terri Schiavo's life were filled with family warfare - her brother locked out of her room, her husband and his lawyers at her bedside, a police officer standing between the battling relatives.

At the end, Schiavo was described as dying a peaceful death about 9 a.m. yesterday - white lilies and roses near her bed, a tabby cat stuffed animal by her side, the hum of protesters and news crews inaudible in her quiet hospice room.

About an hour after her death, Brother Paul O'Donnell, the spiritual adviser to Schiavo's parents, delivered the news to the dozens of people assembled outside the hospice. Within moments, word flickered through the crowd still fighting for the reinsertion of the severely brain-damaged woman's feeding tube. "Terri's dead," one woman said. A man held his children's hands and prayed. Another dropped to her knees and sobbed.

As it has throughout this battle over Schiavo's fate - a family feud that sparked a national debate over the end of life - bitterness marked her last hours.

At 8:45 a.m., hospice nurses told Michael Schiavo, "You better come right now if you want to be with her before she dies," said George Felos, the husband's lawyer. Terri Schiavo's breath was entering rapid and shallow cycles, a sign of her body's shutting down. Her skin became mottled from the lack of circulation, Felos said; her limbs grew cold.

Felos said his client, who had been sleeping in a nearby room at the hospice for the past two weeks, hurried to his wife - bringing Felos and another lawyer, his brother Brian Schiavo and several hospice workers into the cramped room. But he refused his wife's brother, Bobby Schindler, fearful of a scene. Terri Schiavo's parents were not at the hospice, and Terri Schiavo died soon after Michael Schiavo entered the room.

He was said to be cradling her at the time of her death.

The family drama then took a public turn when The Rev. Frank Pavone, a Schindler friend who had been praying inside the hospice, railed before the cameras after Schiavo's death. He said the family members were told to leave 10 minutes before the 41-year-old woman's death. He criticized Michael Schiavo for keeping Bobby Schindler from the room at the end.

"His heartless cruelty continues until this very last moment," Pavone said.

Later, Felos countered that Schindler had been arguing with a police officer over access to Schiavo's bedside at her death and would have been able to return only with a police escort. Schindler, he said, would have compounded the trauma of the death.

"She had a right to have her last and final moments on this earth be experienced by a spirit of love and not of acrimony," Felos said. "He appropriately decided she had a right to spend her final moments ... without a policeman standing next to her."

Michael Schiavo made no public statements yesterday. He has argued that his wife would never have wanted to live on artificial life support. After a 1990 collapse she had been in what doctors called a persistent vegetative state, and nearly two weeks ago Michael Schiavo won a court order to have her feeding tube removed. But her parents, Bob and Mary Schindler, believing they saw signs of emotion and thought, battled the move.

The rancor surrounding Schiavo's last days relented somewhat late yesterday afternoon when the Schindler family, looking teary and exhausted, appeared for their final news conference outside the hospice.

"Our family asks for forgiveness for anything we have done fighting for Terri's life," Bobby Schindler said, reading from notes as his extended family reached their arms around one another. "Terri, your life and your legacy will continue to live on as the nation is now awakened to the plight of thousands of voiceless people with disabilities."

Bob Schindler, Terri Schiavo's father, stood beside his son but did not make any public statements. Schiavo's mother, Mary Schindler, stayed largely out of public view yesterday except for a moment when she arrived at the hospice to view her daughter's body.

As word of Schiavo's death spread, mourners trickled onto the fenced-in lawn outside the hospice where protesters had set up a 24-hour encampment in a campaign to resume Schiavo's nourishment. News helicopters circled overhead. A sign that had counted Schiavo's days since her feeding tube was disconnected stood frozen at 13.

Inside the hospice, Schiavo's body was being bathed and prepared for the medical examiner's office, where an autopsy would be performed. More than 30 workers who had cared for Schiavo during her seven years at the central Florida facility formed a circle around her body to pay their respects as it lay on the medical examiner's gurney, Felos said. He added that many staffers worked overtime just to be there when she died.

The crowd outside was still absorbing the news when two white vans tore off in opposite directions - one with police motorcycle escorts, another taking a back route through a mobile home park. Spectators wondered whether either one held Schiavo, though none surged toward the vans or began to protest on what police said was a peaceful day.

After mourners sang the hymn "How Great Thou Art," Randall Terry, the founder of the anti-abortion group Operation Rescue, appeared before the bank of cameras battling tears behind his sunglasses. Though he said previously that there would be "hell to pay" if Schiavo died, yesterday he spoke more carefully, praising the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson, who lobbied state lawmakers to keep Schiavo alive.

"I pray that the rancor that is in the political debate can subside," said Terry, who raised his profile through this case. "I pray to God that the talking heads in D.C. and New York and people like me, because I've been a part of it, can ratchet it down a bit."

Later, on the lawn outside the hospice, Monsignor Thaddeus Malanowski celebrated a Mass. The tone lacked the rancor of the Roman Catholic priest's efforts Easter Sunday, when he could deliver Communion only by holding an eyedropper of wine while a pastor selected by Schiavo's husband held his hand as well.

Shaded by an umbrella with the logo of the Family Research Council, an anti-abortion group active in the Schindler cause, Malanowski praised the demonstrators: "God will reward you because you did what you thought was right and good. You did it for Terri because you respect life from the moment of conception to natural death."

Mourners sought to find significance in Schiavo's death.

"I believe this happened for a purpose," said Meredith Morris, 60, a protester from Johnson City, Tenn., who said that God spoke to her during a breakfast for gun rights and told her to drive the 800 miles to pray for Schiavo. "The Constitution was ordained by God and it was attacked, and now it's going to send a brush fire of freedom in the world. It will cause people to take sides and strengthen the faith of the Christians."

A wrestler who gave his name as Duke Righteous shaved off his eyebrows in a sign of mourning - an act, he said, that got him in touch with his spirituality - and fretted about what Schiavo's death would do to a country marked by political and cultural rifts.

Though Michael Schiavo plans to have his wife's cremated ashes buried in their native Pennsylvania, he is not expected to disappear as a target among the opponents in the conflict over the treatment of his wife.

Yesterday, amid reports that his family members were receiving threatening phone calls, Michael Schiavo stayed out of view and his lawyer refused to specify his whereabouts. The FBI recently arrested a North Carolina man accused of sending an e-mail offering a $250,000 bounty for the killing of Michael Schiavo.

Outside the hospice, a woman held a sign with a picture of Michael Schiavo next to photographs of murder suspect O.J. Simpson and convicted murderer Scott Peterson.

"I'm going to go sit out in front of his house today; my fight is just going to get stronger," said Lindsay McDonald, 25, a Tampa human resources consultant.

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