PINELLAS PARK, Fla. — Through good times and bad, the Schiavos and the Schindlers stood together.
When money got tight after Terri and Michael Schiavo were wed, her parents, Bob and Mary Schindler, made room in their home near Philadelphia for the young couple.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday March 29, 2005 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 29 words Type of Material: Correction
Novelist's name -- An article in Sunday's Section A detailing the rift between Michael Schiavo and his wife's parents misspelled the last name of novelist Danielle Steel as Steele.
When the Schindlers moved to Florida two years later, the kids followed so they could all remain close. Michael called his in-laws "Mom and Dad." They treated him like a son and felt fortunate to have him in the family.
They stood together again in 1990, when Terri had a heart attack and permanent brain damage. The family gathered at her bedside, praying for a miracle.
"Without him there is no way I could have survived all this," Mary Schindler said in court testimony, recalling that her son-in-law was a source of strength in the days after her daughter's collapse. "We were in it together."
They still spend hours at Terri Schiavo's side, trying to comfort the 41-year-old woman who is near death at Woodside Hospice here. But Michael Schiavo and the Schindlers are never in the small room at the same time. They have not spoken in 12 years.
The family unity ruptured in 1993, when a dispute broke out over how to spend a malpractice award, friends say. That was followed by a bigger fight over Michael's decision to let Terri die by withdrawing the feeding tube that kept her alive.
Since then, anger has grown on both sides.
"There is only one rule in how we get to spend time with Terri," said her uncle, Mike Tammaro, returning from a recent visit to her in the hospice. "It's a matter of staying away from [Michael], something we have to do here every single day."
For his part, Michael Schiavo, 41, has said he is honoring Terri Schiavo's wishes in disconnecting her feeding tube. He criticizes the Schindlers' opposition, saying in a recent television interview: "Fifteen years. You've got to come to grips with it sometime."
His brother, Scott, has stronger words for the Schindlers: "The attack that these people have made on Michael's decency is outrageous. There is no possibility that the differences between them can ever be healed."
How did it come to this? How did a family disagreement -- not unlike those thousands of families wrestle with -- turn into a seemingly endless and very public feud?
"Most families find common ground," said Pam Ellis, a former nursing home aide who has joined the protesters massing each day in front of the hospice. "But these people haven't come close."
The rancor is especially intense between Terri Schiavo's father and her husband.
"It's a conflict of father against son-in-law, man to man," said Brother Paul O'Donnell, the Schindlers' spiritual advisor. "I don't know how or where it ends."
This account of that feud, how it started and how it grew, was drawn from recent interviews with family members and friends, past interviews in other media, court documents and other public records.
Terri Schiavo was the oldest of three children, a bright girl who loved stuffed animals, Danielle Steele novels and fashion. The Schindler family lived in a four-bedroom colonial house near Philadelphia. Her father, Bob, now 67, was an electrical engineer; her mother, Mary, now 64, stayed home to take care of the children, ferrying them to school and soccer games. The Schindlers were devout Catholics.
Michael Schiavo, the youngest of five boys, grew up in Levittown, a suburb near Philadelphia. He stood 6-foot-7, liked school athletics and had a fondness for high school debate, according to his brother, Scott.
He went to summer camp with his brothers and attended Lutheran Church services on Sundays. His father, Bill, was a safety engineer for AT&T; his mother, Clara, was a stay-at-home mom.
Terri met Michael in 1982 while both were enrolled in a sociology class at Bucks County Community College in Newtown, Pa. Years later, he recalled in a radio interview that she "had this amazing, wonderful laugh, and she was beautiful. The first time I saw her in class, I fell in love with her."
The two dated, became engaged and were married in November 1984. As newlyweds, they remained close to both families, taking vacations and having Sunday night dinners with them.
The couple wanted to have children, but she had difficulties getting pregnant. At the same time, she continued wrestling with a lifelong weight problem. She weighed 200 pounds in high school, dropped to 150 pounds when married, and then fell to 110 pounds.
Friends wondered how Terri Schiavo, an insurance clerk, managed to keep off her weight. Her husband, an assistant manager at a McDonalds, was also mystified.
The couple moved to the St. Petersburg area in Florida in 1988, seeking better job opportunities. She continued to work with an insurance company, and he worked as a restaurant manager.