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Whitney Cerak, Laura Van Ryn

Three years ago, a van full of students were returning to school when a truck driver fell asleep behind the wheel and his tractor trailer truck veered across the median, headlong into the path of the van. The crash was fatal for all of the students except one. The blond girl was found alive, having been thrown from the van, with a purse by her side. Someone at the scene put the purse with the injured girl as identification. The purse belonged to Laura Van Ryn.

Whitney Cerak’s parents, Newell and Colleen Cerak of Gaylord, Michigan, were given the tragic news that their daughter had died in the accident. Due to the extent of her injuries, her casket was closed and no one who knew her saw her in death. She was buried in her hometown.

Meanwhile, the family of Laura Van Ryn were told that their daughter was in the hospital with traumatic brain injuries. She was badly bruised, cut and swollen. Her face was covered in bandages, she had tubes coming out of her mouth and head and she was kept in an artificial coma so that the swelling in her brain could go down. For five weeks, Don and Susie Van Ryn and their other daughter, Lisa Van Ryn, sat by the girl they thought was their daughter.

During that five weeks, there were hints that something wasn’t right. However, as human beings we rationalize things away and under the circumstances, no one expected the comatose girl to wake up being like she was before. It was Laura’s sister Lisa that finally made the breakthrough. After Whitney began to regain consciousness, every time the nurses or Van Ryns called her ‘Laura’, she would correct them and weakly say ‘Whitney’.

Finally Lisa Van Ryn started putting the pieces of the puzzle together and realized that the blond girl in the hospital was not her sister Laura, but Whitney Cerak, who had presumed to have died in the accident. Of course, that meant that her sister had been killed and was buried instead of Whitney.

The unraveling of the mystery of the mistaken identity was painful for both parents. Joyful and painful at the same time, in different ways for each family. The families have remained close. They have written a book, Mistaken Identity, and appeared on the Oprah Winfrey Show. Their story has captured the hearts of all who have read it.

Now, three years after the accident, Whitney Cerak has recovered from her injuries and graduated from Taylor University in May 2009. She is going to do missionary work in Kenya. Taylor University recently dedicated a prayer chapel in memory of those who were killed in the accident.

Four students and one employee of Taylor University were killed in the crash, Laura Van Ryn, 22, of Caledonia Township, Indiana, Bradley J. Larson, 22, of Elm Grove, Wisconsin, Elizabeth A. Smith, 22, of Mount Zion, Illinois, Laurel E. Erb, 20, of St. Charles, Illinois and Taylor employee Monica Felver, 53, of Hartford City, Indiana.

mistaken identity

Mistaken Identity: Whitney, Laura

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Taylor University Students Killed in Accident – Photos

Mistaken Identity: Whitney Cerak, Laura Van Ryn – Video