WEST CHESTER, Pa.—If Nick Berg had a tragic flaw, his father thinks he knows what it was.
"He believed in people," Michael Berg said Tuesday, shortly after learning that his son had been beheaded in Iraq. "He wanted to help people."
Whatever came up, "he thought he could handle it," Michael said. "That was both the good—and the demise—of him. He didn't believe that people would do things."
Those who knew Nick Berg, 26, remembered him as a complex man—funny, outgoing, dramatic, compassionate, inquisitive, inventive and extremely bright. Above all, they remembered him as a humanitarian who wanted to make the world better.
He played the tuba in high school and traveled to Third World countries with only a small backpack, taking only barest essentials because he felt material things got in the way.
Berg felt comfortable with strangers, his family said.
"I think part of what got him into trouble was that he wasn't afraid to be in with groups that most Americans won't be with," said his mother, Suzanne. "And I don't think he understood the danger of ... traveling with non-Americans. That's probably what killed him. He was probably in a group of non-Americans and stood out like a sore thumb."
Gathered in their split-level house, Berg's family talked of him as a science whiz, a sweet, unselfish kid who carried a Jewish prayer shawl, though they don't believe his religion played a role in his death.
He'd be embarrassed by "us saying all this sweet stuff," his sister, Sara, 31, said. "He had this tough-guy attitude."
Neither his family nor his friends wanted Berg to go to Iraq. They were frightened for him.
But Berg's mind was made up, "and he's pretty adamant when he wants to do something," said Doug Strickland, a childhood friend. Berg had planned to be home in time to be a groomsman in Strickland's April wedding.
Michael Berg said his son "was excited being" in Iraq. "He thought he was finally going to become part of this rebuilding process," he said.
Michael said his son e-mailed several times a day. In his first e-mail home, Berg "apologized profusely for everything he put us through. That's what he was thinking of, all that he put us through."
In Iraq, Berg was looking for work inspecting communications towers—a natural outgrowth of a lifelong love of heights. On a family trip to the Grand Canyon, Michael stopped well short of the edge of the chasm. His son went right up to it.
"We should have known he was going to be a tower climber," Michael said with a wistful smile. "I'm not sure how old he was, but he was a pretty young fellow when he asked me if he could build a treehouse in the back yard."
A couple months later, Berg asked if he could add to it.
"By then, I was pretty confident that he could handle himself up there," his father said. "He made it a three-story treehouse. He had wallboard on the inside of it. He had electricity."
Berg wasn't afraid to branch out.
In eighth grade, he brought beer into his science class to demonstrate the process of fermentation. In his high school electronics class, he used parts from a movie projector to send radio signals around the classroom on a laser beam.
He told the class that this was how future phones would work—with signals traveling through air, not wires.
"I don't know if I was teaching him or he was teaching me," said Harry "Skip" Best, who taught the electronics class. He said Berg helped set up some of the first computers in his department.
Berg was part of a science "Olympiad" team that won awards in national competitions. He also won an award for an invention he called the "invert alert."
His grandmother "was ill at the time," Michael Berg said. "We were afraid that she would fall. And this thing, basically, if it tipped over, it would sound an alarm and wake my father up so he could help her. That's where his head was."
"I expected to be interviewed some day about how successful he was, that he had saved a Third World country," said James Morrison, another of Berg's teachers, who choked back tears as he spoke.
His peers were impressed, too. "He could build a computer out of cardboard and tin foil, and that's not really an exaggeration," said Will Scott, 27, a software developer in Austin, Texas, who was on Berg's high school Olympiad team.
Berg went to Cornell University but didn't graduate. He grew to disdain "the kind of job where the engineers are afraid to get their Jaguars dirty," his father said.
Berg's trips to Iraq weren't his first abroad. A year ago, he went to Kenya, and as a college sophomore, he'd gone to Uganda for an engineering project that involved making building blocks out of mud and cement.
"The advantage of it was it could be made on site," Michael Berg recalled.
Blocks came up again last November at a technical conference Berg attended in Hill Air Force Base in Layton, Utah.
There he showed a new design for cell phone and radio towers built from reinforced concrete blocks, instead of more costly steel.
"He was really kind of excited about it," said Raquel King, who works at the base. "The importance of the technology was that you could do this easily in Third World countries."
(Bauers reports for The Philadelphia Inquirer.)
(c) 2004, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): USIRAQ-BEHEADING