It’s hard not to pass by a terrible accident on the road and feel grateful for your own safety. It’s always terrifying to think how in just an instant, one small mistake can bring about a chain of events that hurts countless people…
When a group of Indiana college students and school staff were on the road one day, they had no idea that this would be the case. Yet as some families were mourning their loved ones, others were nowhere near ready for even more shocking news…
On Wednesday, April 26, 2006, a van from Taylor University in Indiana was carrying a group back from Fort Wayne, where they were setting up for a scholarship banquet the following day. The students and school staff members all worked for the university’s dining services department.
The van was on Interstate 69, just a couple of miles away from the university’s exit, when an unexpected tragedy struck. After a long day on the road, the driver of a tractor trailer on the other side of the road fell asleep at the wheel. The massive semi drove across the median and crashed straight into the van…
Bomb Went Off
First responders arrived at the scene and were devastated by what they saw. “Indiana State Police troopers from the Redkey District along with Marion city police, Grant County Sheriff’s deputies, emergency workers and firefighters converged on the scene that looked more like a Baghdad bombing than an Indiana highway on a gentle spring evening,” USA Today wrote in 2006.
Five people had been killed in the crash and the rest were in bad shape. In the wake of the horrific accident, police identified the crash victims as Elizabeth Smith, 22, Bradley Larson, 22, Laurel Erb, 20, Whitney Cerak, 18, and Taylor University employee Monica Felver, 53. The four other people traveling in the van had made it out of the crash alive, but they all needed to be hospitalized…
This included 22-year-old senior Laura Van Ryn who had been knocked unconscious and suffered massive head injuries in the crash. Paramedics quickly covered her face in bandages and brought her to the emergency room. The young woman was in critical condition and fighting for her life.
All Bandaged Up
Don and Susie Van Ryn rushed to the hospital to be by their daughter’s side. She was barely recognizable in the hospital because she was so battered from the deadly crash. Laura’s sister, Lisa Van Ryn, began an Internet Web blog to update loved ones and friends back in their hometown of Caledonia about her sister’s condition. She had no idea what she would soon be writing in the weeks to come…
It was not looking good. Laura was in coma-like state and her family and friends kept a bedside vigil over her for weeks after the crash. They refused to give up hope that she would make it out alive. She received an outpouring amount of love and support from people who were sending her well wishes for recovery.
Meanwhile, all of Taylor University, the local community, and especially the family and friends of the crash victims were mourning their tragic deaths. Funerals were held and memorial services saw thousands paying tribute to the group. Everyone had no choice but to move on and hope a miracle would happen for Laura. No one saw what was actually coming…
Slowly, Laura began to get better and amaze the doctors and hospital staff who thought they were going to lose her. As her condition improved, she was moved to a rehabilitation center in Grand Rapids in mid-May. At first, all she could do was flail at her parents and doctors, but after about five weeks into her hospitalization, Laura had a breakthrough.
Around this same time, however, members of the Van Ryn family started to notice that some things were a little different about their beloved Laura. They knew she had been through a terribly traumatic experience and needed time to heal, but they worried she was never going to be the same. She was very different from how they last remembered her…
First, Laura’s parents noticed her teeth: something was unusual about them. She also had a navel piercing: something they definitely didn’t know about her. Laura’s roommate at the time was also very shaken after seeing her in the hospital. She told the staff that something was very wrong. Laura looked completely different…
Laura was also making comments about things and people that were inconsistent with her life before. Maybe Laura was just confused due to her head trauma, they thought, but she was acting very strange. She told her parents that they were not her parents and her sister that she believed she was someone else…
Who Are You?
Finally, a therapist asked Laura to write her name hoping to discover if she was suffering from some sort of amnesia or dissociation. Nothing could have prepared them for when the young woman wrote down the name “Whitney” and went on to identify her parents as Newell and Colleen, as in the parents of Whitney Cerak, who died in the crash.
A dental examination proved the Van Ryn family’s worst suspicion: their daughter “Laura” was actually ‘Whitney Cerak’ who had survived the terrible crash and been misidentified due to the girl’s similar blonde hair and physical appearance. Both families were completely stunned by the revelation…
Weeks after the Cerak’s had a funeral for their daughter, she was in the hospital calling for them. Meanwhile, Laura Van Ryn’s body was interred in a grave marked w at a funeral with 1400 people in attendance. After endless nights spent praying for Laura’s recovery, the Van Ryn’s were devastated to find out that she was long gone.
The tragic mix-up between Laura and Whitney was then discovered to have happened early on, almost immediately after the crash. A first responder later recalled finding Laura Van Ryn’s ID card and clipping it onto Whitney, believing it to be the correct ID, before going to the hospital. It was an innocent mistake that caused a heartbreaking ordeal for the two families…
Joy & Pain
“Soon after we saw Whitney, our family met with the Van Ryn’s and our joy for ourselves was pushed aside by the pain we felt for them,” Whitney’s sister Carly Cerak shared online. “It is hard because our joy is their pain… This immediately brought back all the realness of the pain we felt only a few days ago.”
In The News
The media also had a field day with the shocking case of mistaken identity. They hounded both families, but neither the Van Ryn nor the Cerak family spoke publicly about the tragic incident for nearly two years. And when they finally opened up to the media, no one could have expected what they would say about one another…
“The Van Ryns, they loved me like I was their daughter because they believed that I was their daughter,” Cerak said. Following her recovery, she returned to school and received her degree. The Van Ryn’s accepted an honorary degree for Laura and stayed close with Whitney and the Cerak’s over the years. In fact, the tragic mix-up brought them together in a strange way and although nothing could replace the loss of Laura, they took comfort in their new “family”.
Nothing But Joy
Four years after that fateful day, Whitney Cerak was married in the same church her funeral was held in. Today, she and her military husband have two boys and a girl. “What a joy to see Whitney and Matt with their three kids,” Susie Van Ryn, Laura’s mother, told TODAY in 2016. “It’s wonderful. It’s nothing but joy for them.”