When a road crash in Indiana killed five people affiliated with Taylor University, the local community naturally mourned the tragedy. And while there were fortunately survivors of the appalling accident, their loved ones all had to wait anxiously to see whether their family members would pull through. That was the case with Laura Van Ryn’s relatives, as they faced a grueling period watching the young woman slowly recover from her injuries. When the student in the hospital bed finally came round, though, she had a shock in store – and it was one that made headlines all over the world.
On the evening of April 26, 2006, five students and four university staff were traveling from Taylor University’s campus in Fort Wayne, Indiana. The former base was located about 55 miles north of Upland – the town where the Christian college has its main presence today.
And the group’s van made its way south along Interstate 69 as the clock ticked past 8:00 p.m. The vehicle was just a couple of miles shy of the exit for Marion, in fact, meaning the nine people on board were now not far from their destination. It was at that moment, however, that tragedy struck.
For reasons that only became apparent after the event, a truck crossed the central reservation and headed straight for the Taylor University van. And, horrifically, there was nothing that the van driver could do to avoid a collision. Tragically, this crash would prove fatal for five of the nine passengers on board.
Among the dead listed was a member of the Taylor University staff, Monica Felver, as well as four young students: Brad Larson, Laurel Erb, Betsy Smith, and Whitney Cerak. Three further members of staff had survived the impact, however, along with one student, who was named as Laura Van Ryn.
Naturally, the scene that emergency responders came across that fateful night was heartbreaking. It was also chaotic, with the contents of the van and its passengers spread out across the road. And while the survivors were given life-saving care, the response team also tried desperately to identify the victims of the crash.
It turned out, moreover, that Van Ryn, of Caledonia, Michigan, had suffered life-threatening head injuries. These were quickly bandaged by emergency workers, who also located her identity card. And soon after that, the university senior – who was 22 years old at the time – was taken to hospital in an unconscious state.
Then, after the deceased were removed from the road, their family members were informed of the horrible news. ID cards and eyewitness statements had been taken at the scene, too, meaning there was no need for grieving loved ones to confirm the identities of those who had passed away. And Whitney Cerak’s family declined to see their daughter in person – perhaps distraught at the prospect of looking at her injuries first-hand.
Cerak had been 18 years old and a freshman at Taylor, and her parents were naturally devastated to hear that their daughter had been killed in the crash. Their loss was mourned outside of the family, too. Days on from the crash, an estimated 1,400 people attended Cerak’s funeral, with the teenager’s sister providing a eulogy.
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, and this meant she was unable to communicate with those around her. In addition, her face was bandaged and badly swollen, making it difficult even for her closest loved ones to recognize her.
And, understandably, the crash itself sent shockwaves through the Taylor community. Responsibility fell on the shoulders of the university’s president Eugene Habecker, then, to lead his staff and students through the traumatic aftermath of the accident. He offered support, too, to the families of the deceased and injured.
As a consequence, Habecker went to the hospital to visit Van Ryn – who remained unresponsive – and comfort the girl’s parents, Don and Susie. “[Van Ryn’s] head was fully bandaged, and she of course was still unconscious,” the college president recalled to TV news station Fox 59 back in 2016. He added, “I asked Don if I could hold Laura’s hand and pray for her.”
Yet one question remained: what had the semi-trailer truck been doing on the wrong side of the road? Well, crash investigators interviewed the driver of the vehicle, Robert F. Spencer, and soon ascertained that he had fallen asleep at the wheel. That was the reason why Spencer had veered off course on I-69.
It turned out, too that Spencer had provided false details in the lead-up to the crash. In particular, he had been driving for nine hours longer than permitted under federal law without taking a significant break and had doctored his time logs to disguise that fact. As a result, then, Spencer was subsequently charged with five counts of reckless homicide.
The victims’ families were further devastated by this news. “One second of [Spencer] falling asleep, and we will suffer for the rest of our lives,” Felver’s daughters later said in a joint statement. But – in what may have been very small consolation for the relatives – Spencer did show 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.
Spencer was handed four years in prison for his role in the accident, ultimately spending half of that time behind bars. And years later, Jeff Larson – whose brother Brad had been killed in the crash – said that he didn’t hold any ill-will towards the driver. “Over the last several years, my heart has been drawn to respond with forgiveness,” Larson told Fox 59 in 2016.
Yet while the families were able to discover the reason for the crash, it didn’t change the fact that their loved ones were gone. And Van Ryn in particular still had a significant fight on her hands: to recover from the sickening injuries that she had sustained in the crash. Fortunately, though, as time passed, the young woman began to slowly improve.
Meanwhile, Van Ryn’s sister Lisa decided to keep a blog that was intended to update friends, family and other Taylor University students of her sibling’s treatment and progress. The online space was also somewhere that well-wishers could offer their prayers for the stricken university senior.
And on May 29, 2006, Lisa offered an encouraging update. “While certain things seem to be coming back to [Laura], she still has times when she’ll say things that don’t make any sense,” she wrote. Slowly but surely, then, the student was regaining consciousness and the ability to communicate – which was of course wonderful news for her family.
The recovering crash victim was also beginning to be able to whisper, although some of the things she said continued to baffle her carers and her own family. Then, five weeks after Van Ryn was admitted to hospital, an unbelievable discovery was made.
You see, although hospital staff had been calling Van Ryn by her name, she had been responding in a barely audible whisper with another. Then, when the patient was asked to write down her first name as part of her recovery process, the truth came out. The young woman in the hospital bed was not Van Ryn at all; it was Whitney Cerak.
And while the two women had looked remarkably similar, this seemed a particularly egregious case of mistaken identity. For one, the individual laid to rest all those weeks earlier at the memorial service had not been Cerak at all; Van Ryn had died, instead.
How did this horrible mix-up occur? According to Fox 59, the wrong ID had been affixed to Van Ryn’s body at the crash scene, leading the authorities to believe that she had been Cerak. In addition, the woman in the hospital’s head injuries were so severe that she had been unable to voice her true identity for weeks.
In the aftermath of the discovery, then, Cerak’s sister Carly took over Lisa’s blog 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,” Carly wrote. It was an incredible moment for the family.
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 added.
And Van Ryn’s mother, Susie, summed up her feelings when talking to Dateline in 2008. “Well, it was hard,” she said. “But we knew where our daughter was… and we knew that [Cerak’s parents] Newell and Colleen needed to know where their daughter was.”
But while losing their daughter and sister was naturally hard for the Van Ryns, they still had to deal with the possibility of people questioning them. How, after all, did they not recognize that the woman in the hospital bed was a complete stranger? Well, a psychiatrist has explained how, under the circumstances, such an event could play out.
“The family members – they’re being told by the authorities that it is in fact their daughter,” Harvard professor Richard J. McNally told The New York Times in 2006. “The person in the hospital is rather badly banged up and bruised, and [the relatives] might conceivably accept that verdict from the authorities.”
Meanwhile, others have asked why Van Ryn’s body 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,” Palmbach said. “But usually, if it’s clear that the deceased wasn’t the driver, an autopsy isn’t done.”
And, unsurprisingly, the incredible story received widespread media attention. The crash and the subsequent identity mix-up were covered in a special episode of Dateline as well as on both The Oprah Winfrey Show, and Today. They have also acted as the inspiration for episodes of both CSI: NY and House, M.D..
But as terrible as the accident and the misidentification both were, lessons have since been learned. Back in 2006, state coroners in Indiana used a system known as presumptive evidence to identify bodies. And 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.
That meant that only regular forms of ID – such as drivers’ licenses – were used to identify bodies at the time of the crash. Van Ryn had then been paired with the wrong ID at the crash site, and this mistake hadn’t been flagged up by the Ceraks, who had declined to view who they thought had been their daughter. In addition, further steps to confirm identity – such as DNA testing, for example – were only performed at the coroner’s discretion.
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. As a result, this system of coroner’s discretion has been abolished in Indiana, with either family identification, scientific evidence or a mixture of both now required for all suspicious or unnatural deaths. The two girls’ home state of Michigan has enacted similar changes.
And while these developments may be of little comfort to the Van Ryns, hopefully 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, too, and this warranted an apology by the Saskatchewan Office of the Chief Coroner.
Plus, for Cerak in particular, the mix-up has led to some surreal moments. And she spoke about some of these 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.
Cerak also recalled some of the things that people had said at her funeral. It turned out that her sister had revealed she didn’t shower enough; another eulogizer had added how Cerak hadn’t been very good at sports. But despite these light-hearted revelations, the young woman has remained deeply affected by the crash and the subsequent misidentification.
Poignantly, the crash survivor also spoke about the family of Laura Van Ryn at the event. “The Van Ryns – they loved me like I was their daughter because they believed that I was their daughter,” she said. “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.”
Unsurprisingly, then, 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 called Mistaken Identity: Two Families, One Survivor, Unwavering Hope, which was published in 2008.
In the years since the crash, then, Cerak – now a married mother of three – has grasped the chance at life she was afforded. In fact, in 2010 she said her wedding vows in the very same church where her funeral had been held just four years before. It was yet another surreal twist for the young woman and her family.
“[The wedding] 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,” Cerak’s father, Newell, told HuffPost in 2012. And in the face of such tragedy and loss, it’s important to celebrate any happiness that survives.