The Muncie Star Press ran a story today about a Taylor University student who had a unique case of mistaken identity, one that Hoosiers will never forget. Ten years ago, a horrific crash killed five people and resulted in a case that became international news.
The Star reports, “The crash occurred on the evening of April 26, 2006, according to Fox59. Nine people were riding a Taylor University van on I-69, returning from Fort Wayne after setting up for a luncheon the following day. Just after 8 p.m., the van was a couple miles from the Marion exit at State Road 18 when a semi truck came across the median and struck the van. Investigators would later learn the driver of the semi, Robert Spencer, had fallen asleep at the wheel before running off the northbound roadway.
The crash killed Taylor University students Brad Larson, Laurel Erb, Betsy Smith, Laura Van Ryn, and university staff member Monica Felver.
In the chaos that followed, emergency workers at the scene of the crash mixed up the identities of Laura Van Ryn and Whitney Cerak. Cerak had survived the crash, but her face was covered by bandages due to a head injury. Van Ryn’s parents arrived at Parkview Hospital in Fort Wayne, unaware that their daughter had died, and the injured and bandaged young woman in the hospital bed was actually Cerak. Meanwhile, Cerak’s family was told Whitney had been killed, even though she was alive and unconscious at the hospital.
The identity mix-up occurred when an emergency responder mistakenly clipped Van Ryn’s student ID to the injured Cerak. When Cerak’s family arrived at the hospital, they were told that no ID on the body was needed. Days later, about 1,400 Taylor University students attended the funeral and burial for Cerak. But it was actually the body of Van Ryn being laid to rest.
Taylor University President Eugene Habecker recalled visiting with Van Ryn’s parents, Don and Susie, at the hospital and praying for their daughter’s recovery.
“Her head was fully bandaged, and she of course was still unconscious,” Habecker said. “I asked Don if I could hold Laura’s hand and pray for her. We didn’t know it then, but I was actually holding Whitney’s hand.”
For several weeks, the world believed Cerak had died in the crash and Van Ryn had lived. But members of the Van Ryn family started to notice curious differences between their loved one and the injured young woman they were caring for. Five weeks after the crash, a therapist asked the young woman to write her name. She was able to spell out “Whitney.”
After mourning for five weeks, Whitney Cerak’s family were informed that Whitney was still alive. Laura Van Ryn’s family had to accept that Laura was gone.
Whitney’s sister, Carly later wrote:
“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.”
After recovering from her injuries, Cerak returned and graduated from Taylor University a few years later. She married her longtime boyfriend, Matt Wheeler, and the couple have three children.”
Whitney Cerak (Wheeler) is expected to speak during another prayer service scheduled for Wednesday at Taylor University. Her story was published in the book, Mistaken Identity.