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happyworld - This Girl Miraculously Survived A Crash, Family Members Began To Suspect She Wasn’t Who She Seemed

Image: Today
Truth is stranger than fiction, or so the old adage goes. It certainly rings true in the tragic-yet-curious tale of a road crash in Indiana which killed five people all affiliated to Taylor University. It is a tragedy that still provokes strong emotions years later among all those connected to the devastating events.
Five students and four university staff were travelling home in a school minivan on the evening of April 26, 2006. The group of nine had been returning from Fort Wayne, IN, which is about 55 miles north of Upland, the town where Taylor University is situated. The university had a campus in Fort Wayne at the time.
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Image: Derek Story
The Taylor van was travelling south along Interstate 69. As the clock ticked past 8:00 p.m., the group found themselves just a couple of miles shy of the exit for Marion, meaning they were now not far from home. However, it was at that moment that tragedy struck.
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For reasons that only became apparent after the event, a truck had crossed the central reservation and was heading straight for the Taylor University van. There was nothing the minivan driver could do to avoid the collision. The result was fatal for five of the nine passengers on board.
Among the dead was listed a member of the Taylor University staff, Monica Felver. The crash also resulted in the reported deaths of four young students: Brad Larson, Laurel Erb, Betsy Smith, and Whitney Cerak. As well as three further members of staff, one student – named as Laura Van Ryn – had survived the impact. Yet she had suffered sickening injuries.
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The scene that emergency responders came across that fateful night was heartbreaking. It was also chaotic, with passengers and contents of the van spread out across the road. While the survivors were given life-saving care, the response team also tried desperately to identify the victims of the crash.
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Van Ryn, of Caledonia, Michigan, had suffered life-threatening head injuries, which were quickly bandaged by emergency workers. Her identity card was located, and kept with her. The university senior, who was 22 years old at the time, was then taken to hospital immediately. She was in an unconscious state.
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The deceased were removed from the scene, and as is the usual practise, family members were informed. Identification cards and eyewitness statements had been taken at the scene, so in-person identification was not in fact required. Whitney Cerak’s family declined to formally identify their daughter, most probably too distraught to face the prospect of looking at her injuries first-hand.
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Image: Rhodi Lopez
Whitney Cerak was 18 years old, and a native of Gaylord, MI. She was a freshman at Taylor. Her parents were devastated at the news that their daughter had been killed in the crash. They began the heartbreaking task of planning their daughter’s funeral. Days later, an estimated 1,400 people attended that funeral, with Cerak’s sister providing the eulogy.
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Meanwhile, Van Ryn’s family were summoned to her hospital bed. The young woman had suffered terrible injuries that had left her in a state akin to a coma. She was unable to communicate with those around her. In addition, her face was bandaged and badly swollen. It was difficult even for her closest loved ones to recognize her.
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Understandably, the crash sent shockwaves through the Taylor community. As president of the university, much responsibility fell on the shoulders of Eugene Habecker to lead his staff and students through the traumatic aftermath. Habecker also offered support to the families of the deceased and injured.
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Habecker went to the hospital to visit Van Ryn, who was still unresponsive. He offered comfort to the girl’s parents, Don and Susie. “Her head was fully bandaged, and she of course was still unconscious,” Habecker recalled to TV news station Fox 59 back in 2016. “I asked Don if I could hold Laura’s hand and pray for her,” the university president added.
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What all those connected to the events were continually asking themselves, and each other, was ‘why?’ What had the semi-trailer truck been doing on the wrong side of the road? Crash investigators interviewed the driver of the vehicle, and soon ascertained that Robert F. Spencer, of Canton, MI, had fallen asleep at the wheel. That was the reason his truck had veered onto the wrong side of I-69.
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Spencer had also provided false details in the lead-up to the crash. He had actually been driving for nine hours longer than permitted under federal law without taking a significant break, doctoring his time logs to disguise that fact. He was subsequently charged with five counts of reckless homicide.
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The victims’ families were further devastated by this news. “One second of him falling asleep, and we will suffer for the rest of our lives,” said the daughters of Taylor University staff member Monica Felver, in a joint statement. Spencer showed remorse for his actions. “I know I’ll have to deal with this the rest of my life,” the truck driver said at his sentencing.
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Spencer was eventually sentenced to four years in prison for this role in the accident. He actually spent two of those four years behind bars. Yet years later, Jeff Larson, whose brother Brad was killed in the crash, said he had found forgiveness for Spencer. “Over the last several years, my heart has been drawn to respond with forgiveness,” Larson told Fox 59 in 2016.
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While the families were able to discover the reasons for the crash, it didn’t change the fact that their loved ones were gone. And the surviving student still had a significant fight on her hands: to recover from the sickening injuries that she had sustained in the crash. Fortunately, as time passed, the young woman began to slowly improve.
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Image: Lara Far
Lisa Van Ryn, Laura’s sister, had decided to keep a blog of her sister’s recovery. The blog was intended to update friends, family and other Taylor University students of Van Ryn’s treatment and progress. It was also a place where well-wishers could offer their prayers for the stricken university senior.
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On May 29, Lisa offered an update. “While certain things seem to be coming back to her, she still has times when she’ll say things that don’t make any sense,” wrote Van Ryn’s sister. Slowly but surely, the student was regaining consciousness and the ability to communicate, which was of course wonderful news for her family.
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The recovering crash victim was also beginning to be able to whisper. But some of the things she said continued to make no sense to her carers and her own family. Five weeks after she was admitted to hospital with the serious injuries that she had sustained in the road crash, an unbelievable discovery was made.
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When hospital staff had been calling Van Ryn by her name, she had been responding, in a barely audible whisper, with another. Then, one day, as part of her recovery, Van Ryn was asked to write her name. But she didn’t write “Laura”. She wrote “Whitney” instead. The young woman in the hospital bed was not Laura Van Ryn at all. It was Whitney Cerak!
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The two women looked remarkably similar, from the color and length of their hair, to their complexion and height. But this was five weeks later. How had no one known that this was all a case of mistaken identity? And the body laid to rest all those weeks earlier at the memorial service had not been Cerak at all, but Laura Van Ryn.
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The wrong I.D. had been affixed to the body of Laura Van Ryn at the crash scene, according to Fox 59. That is why authorities had believed all along that the body was that of Whitney Cerak. And as for the woman in the hospital, her head injuries had been so severe that the mistake was not realized for five long weeks.
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Image: Brooke Cagle
Carly Cerak, Whitney’s sister, took over the blog post originally started by Lisa Van Ryn to offer her family’s side of the events. “I did not believe my sister was in the hospital; I thought for sure this was a mistake. When I walked into the hospital room I was shocked and overcome with joy,” wrote Carly. It was an incredible moment for the family.
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Yet it was a situation also heavily tinged with sadness for the Van Ryns. “Soon after we saw Whitney, our family met with the Van Ryns, and our joy for ourselves was pushed aside by the pain we felt for them. It is hard because our joy is their pain,” Carly Cerak added.
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Van Ryn’s mother, Susie, summed up her feelings. “Well, it was hard. But we knew where our daughter was…and we knew that Newell and Colleen needed to know where their daughter was,” Van Ryn’s mother told TV news show TODAY. It was still a tragedy, despite the joy felt by the Ceraks.
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On top of losing their daughter, some reactions to the event were also distressing for the Van Ryns. In particular, there was the oft-repeated question, ‘How did you not realize it wasn’t your daughter in the hospital bed?’ Yet a psychiatrist has stated that is conceivable, under the circumstances, how such events could play out.
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“The family members, they’re being told by the authorities that it is in fact their daughter,” Richard J. McNally, a psychiatry professor from Harvard University told the New York Times newspaper in 2006. “The person in the hospital is rather badly banged up and bruised, and they might conceivably accept that verdict from the authorities,” added Professor McNally.
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Others have asked how it was possible that the body of what turned out to be Laura Van Ryn was never positively identified. Yet this practice isn’t uncommon, as Dr. Tim Palmbach, a forensic scientist, told the New York Times. “Sure, in hindsight, we can say that an autopsy should have been done,” Dr Palmbach said. “But usually, if it’s clear that the deceased wasn’t the driver, an autopsy isn’t done,” he continued.
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Unsurprisingly, the story received widespread media attention. Events were covered in a special episode of Dateline NBC, while they also featured on both The Oprah Winfrey Show, and TODAY. There have also been works of fiction based on the subject matter, including episodes of both CSI: NY and House, M.D..
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As terrible as the tragedy was, with the pain for the two families only heightened by the misidentification of the body, lessons have been learned. Back in 2006, state coroners in Indiana used a system known as presumptive evidence to identify bodies. According to Tony Ciriello, who is the training director at the Coroner’s Training Board in the state, this step was then followed up by scientific findings.
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That meant that the evidence needed to identify the body at the time of the crash consisted of regular forms of I.D., such as a driving license. The wrong I.D. had been associated with Van Ryn at the crash site, and then Cerak’s family declined to view the body of what they thought was their daughter. Further steps to confirm identity, such as DNA testing, for example, were only performed at the coroner’s discretion.
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In this case, the coroner involved decided against this course of action. And of course, Cerak was so badly injured that Van Ryn’s family couldn’t discern that the person lying in the hospital bed was not their daughter. It was a terribly unfortunate series of events that led to the case of mistaken identity. As a result, this system of coroner’s discretion has been abolished in Indiana. Family identification and/or scientific evidence is now required for all suspicious or unnatural deaths. The two girls’ home state of Michigan has enacted similar changes.
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It may be of little comfort to the family of Van Ryn, but at least another Indiana or Michigan family need never go through the same emotional turmoil as they did in the aftermath of the terrible crash on I-69. But mix-ups continue to happen elsewhere. In Canada in 2018, the identity of two junior hockey players was confused after a crash. It took 48 hours for the error to be recognized, and an apology was released by the Saskatchewan Office of the Chief Coroner.
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For Cerak in particular, the mix-up has led to some surreal moments. She spoke about the event and its legacy at the ten-year memorial service for the crash victims at Taylor University. “A lot of people wonder what will people say about you at your funeral. I know,” Cerak told the gathered audience.
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Cerak also recalled some of the lighter things that people had said at her funeral, such as her sister adding in the eulogy that she didn’t shower enough. Another eulogizer added how Cerak wasn’t very good at sports. Yet one of the darker emotions Cerak has felt as a result of the crash and the subsequent mix-up is something called survivor’s guilt.
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Poignantly, the crash survivor also spoke about the family of Laura Van Ryn. “The Van Ryns, they loved me like I was their daughter, because they believed that I was their daughter,” Cerak reported. “And even after I wrote ‘Whitney’ and their world changed and they knew that I wasn’t their daughter, they still treated me like I was their family,” she added.
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Unsurprisingly, a bond has formed between the Ceraks and the Van Ryns. “I love the Van Ryn family. They’re so great,” Cerak was reported as telling TODAY. In fact, the Cerak and Van Ryn families even collaborated on a book, Mistaken Identity: Two Families, One Survivor, Unwavering Hope, published by Howard Books and released in 2008.
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Cerak has grasped the chance at life she was afforded upon surviving the crash. She is now a married mother-of-three. And in a strange quirk, in 2010 she was married in the very same church where her funeral had been held just four years before. It was another surreal twist for the young woman and her family.
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“It was such an unbelievable moment for us, because we were at a moment in our life when we thought this would never be a possibility,” Newell Cerak, Whitney’s father, told website The Huffington Post in 2012. In the face of such tragedy and loss, it’s important to celebrate any happiness that survives.

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