Three weeks after enduring an incorrect report that her son had been killed in Iraq, Theresa Anzack said Tuesday that he was among four soldiers missing after a weekend ambush by insurgents south of Baghdad.
Trying not to cry, Anzack said, "Now, he's missing for real.... I'm praying like I've never prayed before."
Pfc. Joseph J. Anzack, 20, an Army gunner stationed south of the Iraqi capital, was reported dead in late April. Word of his death was even posted on a sign outside his former school, South High School in Torrance.
But he dispelled the rumor with a telephone call home.
On Sunday, when his mother noticed her daughter and several close friends and relatives enter the store where she was working, "I thought they were dropping by to wish me a happy Mother's Day," she said.
"They said, 'Theresa, Joseph's missing,' " she recalled during a hastily arranged news conference at a park near her home. "I went crazy. I said, 'No. No. No.' "
The somber news was conveyed to family members by Army representatives. Two military officials, including an Army chaplain, were staying at a nearby hotel Tuesday while an intensive search continued in Iraq.
"They call us each day, or come by the house," Anzack said. "There's not much we can do but wait, which is the hardest thing in the world to do.
"I'm trying to stay positive," she said, "but it's really hard. I feel powerless, helpless and little bit insane."
The predawn ambush Saturday left four soldiers dead and three missing -- presumed to have been captured by Islamic militants. The Pentagon has identified three of those killed, but is waiting for more testing before the identity of the fourth can be confirmed.
An Iraqi army interpreter was also killed in the attack.
On Tuesday, Theresa Anzack and her daughter, Casey, 16; ex-husband, Joseph Sr.; and family friend Scott Harris, 47, met with reporters to share information. "I know my son -- he missed getting into Special Forces by one sit-up -- and I believe he's still with us," Joseph Anzack Sr. said. "Hopefully, he'll come home soon with stories to tell us at Christmas dinner."
Friends from high school recall the younger Anzack as a driven competitor on the football field who made second-team All-Bay League as a nose tackle his senior year.
Several friends and his former football coach said his decision to join the Army seemed a perfect fit for Anzack's personality.
"He's someone you want in that foxhole with you," said Josh Waybright, South High's head football coach. "He's an extremely hard-working young man. He'd do whatever you asked. One of those kids who would run through a wall for you."
Stephanie Arauco, who knew Anzack in high school and whose older brother Robert played alongside him on the football team, called him "one of those complete Army people. That was all he wanted to do."
Everyone remembers the rumors of Anzack's death that swept through South High School in late April. Anzack's bewildered family members found themselves fielding dozens of condolence calls, and the school erected a banner in memoriam for the former student. The mistake was cleared up within a day when Anzack called home. He updated his MySpace Web page with a headline reading, "im not dead. im still kickin."
Some of Anzack's friends are holding out hope that this time he'll again emerge unscathed.
"I know he's alive. He has to be," Arauco said. "That boy's coming home."
Others aren't so sure. Waybright noted that last month's scare seemed odd from the start because there was no official notice from the Army. But this time, Anzack is listed by the Pentagon as missing.
"When they're reporting it, it definitely worries you a lot more," the coach said. "I just can't imagine what his family is feeling. They've already had to go through it once, and now they're having to go through it again."