A School Trip
Five students and four university staff from Taylor University were returning from a trip from Fort Wayne, IN. At the time, the university had a campus in Fort Wayne, and that is where they were coming from. They were traveling in a school minivan. The Taylor minivan was traveling south along Interstate 69, and it was almost 8 pm on April 26, 2006. The group was just a few miles from the Marion exit, meaning they were almost home. Unfortunately, the van would never make it.
The Tractor Trailer
While the group was traveling home, a tractor-trailer crossed the median and was heading straight toward the Taylor University van. The van driver couldn’t do anything to avoid the collision. Sadly, five of the nine passengers on board were killed.
One member of the staff, Monica Felver, was killed. Four students also died. Brad Larson, Laurel Erb, Betsy Smith, and Whitney Cerak all lost their lives on the highway. One of the surviving students was Laura Van Ryn. She was alive, but she suffered horrific injuries. She suffered a severe head injury, and her face was swollen beyond recognition.
Identifying the Passengers
The accident scene was chaotic, and first responders were working hard to give life-saving care. They also had to identify the people in the van. When the first responders got to Laura, they found her identity card, and they kept it with her. She was unconscious, and her head was immediately bandaged before she was rushed to the hospital. Those who died were taken from the scene, and their family members were informed. Because they had their ID cards on them, the police didn’t require in-person identifications. Whitney Cerak’s family chose not to identify her body in person because seeing their daughter injured so severely would be more than they could take.
Whitney Cerak was an 18-year-old girl from Gaylord, MI. She was a freshman at Taylor, and her family was beyond devastated when they were told of her death. Her parents planned their daughter’s funeral, and an estimated 1,400 attended the funeral. Whitney’s sister provided the eulogy.
Laura was in the hospital, fighting for her life while her family stood by helpless. Her injuries left her in a coma, and she was unable to communicate with those around her. Her face was bandaged and badly swollen. The university president, Eugene Habecker, went to the hospital to see Laura and to offer his support to her parents, Don and Susie. When he went to see her, her face was still bandaged, and she was still in a coma. He asked her father if he could hold her hand to pray. It was a difficult time for everyone.
How Did This Happen?
Shortly after the accident, the police questioned the truck driver, Robert F. Spenser of Canton, MI. He had fallen asleep at the wheel, which caused him to leave his lane of traffic. He had been driving for nine hours longer than permitted under federal law without taking a break. He admitted to doctoring his time logs so nobody would find out. He was charged with five counts of reckless homicide. When he was sentenced, he made a statement. He said, “I know I’ll have to deal with this the rest of my life.” He was sentenced to four years in prison and spent two behind bars. After several years, Jeff Larson, whose brother Brad died in the accident, found forgiveness in his heart for Robert.
Laura’s family remained by her side, and her sister, Lisa, kept a blog about her sister’s progress. She wanted to keep her family and Laura’s classmates updated. It was also a place for well-wishers to post messages to Laura. On May 29th, Laura started making progress. She was regaining consciousness and was able to communicate a little bit. After five weeks in the hospital, Laura’s family made a shocking discovery.
She Wrote, Whitney
The hospital staff was calling her Laura, and they heard her trying to say something. They couldn’t understand her, so they gave her paper to write what she wanted to say. On the paper, she wrote, “Whitney.” The woman in the hospital wasn’t Laura Van Ryn. It was Whitney Cerak. After this girl miraculously survived a crash, family members began to suspect she wasn’t who she seemed. The two women had the same color and length hair, the same complexion, and they were the same height. Because Whitney’s face was so swollen and bandaged, Laura’s parents had no idea that it wasn’t their daughter. Whitney’s family chose not to identify their daughter in person, so they had no idea that the girl they buried wasn’t Whitney. Because the cause of death wasn’t suspicious, an autopsy was never performed. Whitney’s family was thrilled that she was alive, but Laura’s family was devastated. This is one of the most shocking cases of mistaken identity of all time.