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Video: Identity mix-up leaves families devastated

  1. Transcript of: Identity mix-up leaves families devastated

    MATT LAUER, co-host: Let's begin , though, with a stunning mix-up in Arizona , a young woman mistakenly identified as the survivor of a deadly accident. Her family is now speaking out. NBC 's Kristen Welker has details. Kristen , good morning to you.

    KRISTEN WELKER reporting: Good morning to you, Matt. Marlena Cantu 's loved ones are in a lot of pain this morning, but they wanted to share their story to remember their daughter and to try to prevent this from ever happening again.

    Mr. FRANK CANTU: Yes, I'm going to miss my daughter, you know? And, you know, she's still with me, you know, just a matter, you know, it's going to be hard, you know, very hard.

    WELKER: Frank Cantu and his partner, Dolores Retana , are devastated and holding onto each other for support. For more than a week Cantu thought his daughter, 21-year-old Marlena , survived a car crash, only to find out she actually died.

    Mr. CANTU: I was, you know, led to believe that that was Marlena , and it wasn't.

    WELKER: Cantu , a college student, had taken a trip to Disneyland in California with four other friends from her Phoenix high school , including her best friend 19-year-old Abby Guerra . Last weekend Cantu was killed and Guerra survived when their SUV crashed after a tire blew out as they were driving back to Arizona . Somehow their identities were mixed up, and the Cantu family spent the last week at the hospital thinking their daughter was badly injured but alive.

    Mr. CANTU: We were there all week, you know, day and night, you know. I don't think I've slept eight hours the last week or so.

    WELKER: According to the family, dental records finally showed that the young woman who survived was actually Abby Guerra . Her family and friends thought she was dead.

    Mr. JOHN STANLEY (Director of Athletics, Evansville University): I was not shocked to hear about it.

    WELKER: Guerra is a member of the women's soccer team at Evansville University . Her teammates were getting ready to attend her funeral when they got the news.

    Mr. STANLEY: To me the news that Abby Guerra had not died was, while surprising, something that was -- made me feel like this is great, there's a chance.

    WELKER: This isn't the first time this type of heartbreaking mix-up has made headlines. In 2006 Whitney Cerak and her friend Laura VanRyn were in an accident and their identities were mixed up. For weeks the VanRyns thought they were sitting by Laura 's bedside, helping her to heal, only to find out it was really Whitney Cerak and Laura had not made it. The families have appeared on TODAY and the Ceraks have talked about the mixed emotions they have even though Whitney survived.

    Mr. NEWELL CERAK (Whitney Cerak's Father): It is still that bittersweet moment for me because I know that when we get together with them, it -- we have our daughter and they don't have their daughter.

    WELKER: Right now Marlena Cantu 's family has to go through the painful process of learning to live without her. All they want is an answer about how this mix-up occurred.

    Mr. CANTU: You can't explain. I mean -- I mean, there's so much grief.

    WELKER: Cantu wants steps taken to make sure this doesn't happen to other families. Meanwhile, Abby Guerra is still at St. Joe 's Hospital in Phoenix . She is in critical condition, her head shaved for brain surgery, her face swollen. Her family did not want to comment and neither did the hospital.

    Matt: Ah, Kristen Welker. It's a -- it's a tragic story, it really is.

    LAUER:

TODAY staff and wire
updated 7/26/2010 8:47:43 AM ET 2010-07-26T12:47:43

Frank Cantu held vigil at the bed of a young woman he believed to be his daughter Marlena after a car accident supposedly claimed the life of her best friend, Abby Guerra. But it turned out the woman he prayed over was actually Guerra, and that his own daughter had died.

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Now Cantu wants answers about the mix-up, which eerily echoes a 2006 car accident in which a Michigan family cared for a woman they believed to be their daughter, only to learn when she gained consciousness that she was actually another passenger in the same accident.

“I can’t explain this … my grief,” Frank Cantu told NBC News in a report that aired on TODAY Monday. “All along I was led to believe that was Marlena … and it wasn’t.”

Tragic mix-up
Authorities misidentified Guerra as the woman who died in the July 19 crash, and her friend, Cantu, as one who survived, though badly bruised and with a swollen face.

It took nearly a week before dental records identified the injured woman as Guerra, not Cantu. Cantu, 21, was actually killed, and Guerra, 19, was in critical condition with a brain injury, broken back, collapsed lung and other injuries.

Cantu, a college student, had taken a trip to Disneyland in Anaheim, Calif., with four other friends, including her best friend, Guerra. The young women bore a resemblance. The group was traveling back to their native Arizona from California when a tire on their SUV blew out, causing the crash.

The Cantu family spent days at the hospital, believing their daughter was badly injured but alive. “We were there all week … day and night,” Cantu told NBC. “I only slept eight hours all week.”

Meanwhile, Guerra’s family spent the week planning her funeral, and teammates from her University of Evansville soccer team in Indiana planned to fly to Phoenix to attend it. They rushed to her bedside Saturday after learning of the mix-up.

“It’s a miracle but ... you feel angry because we mourned all week,” Dorenda Cisneros, Guerra’s aunt, told KPHO-TV in Phoenix on Sunday.

The Arizona Department of Public Safety said in an e-mail to The Associated Press on Sunday that a spokesman wouldn't be available to discuss the identification mistake until later today.

One of the five friends involved in the crash — Tyler Parker, 20 — was taken to St. Joseph’s Hospital and Medical Center in Phoenix, where he died the next day. Guerra and another person suffered severe head trauma and were also taken to St. Joseph’s.

A hospital spokeswoman wouldn’t release any information Sunday and referred all questions to the Department of Public Safety.

Roller coaster of emotions
The ordeal was devastating for Cantu’s parents, said longtime Cantu friend Colleen Donovan.

“Every day they went [to the hospital] having hope that she’s living one more day, then to find out it’s not her,” Donovan told the Arizona Republic. “And Abby’s parents, too. They’ve gone through all these emotions, and now they find out she’s really alive. Abby still has a struggle to survive.”

Dental records were used to correctly ID the women, Donovan said.

John Stanley, athletics director at the University of Evansville, said Sunday it has been a week of “roller-coaster” emotions for players, staff and administrators at the school. He said soccer players who had expected to be in Arizona for a funeral now are there to support Guerra’s family.

“They were grief-stricken to learn of the death because of Abby’s popularity,” he said. “Now, they understand that the situation is still very critical. They now have gone from planning to go to a funeral ... to having some degree of hope.”

Guerra, a nursing major, was scheduled to begin her sophomore year at the school this fall. Stanley said she emerged as a team leader during her freshman season and has been a dedicated player who is well-liked by her teammates.

Earlier Sunday, the university posted a statement on its website alerting students that Guerra was still alive.

“We do not have any information as to why or how this tragic mix-up occurred,” the statement said. “That is for the officials and the hospital to communicate.”

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The school also said Guerra underwent surgery Saturday night and had been in critical condition all week. It asked for continued prayers for Guerra and her family and friends.

“We at the University of Evansville are all remembering that this is still very much a tragedy as Abby fights for life,” the statement said.

A similar situation happened in Indiana in 2006, when a deadly traffic crash drew widespread attention after two families discovered one of the victims had been misidentified as a survivor.

The two young women were similar in appearance, and the family of the one who died had kept vigil for five weeks at the bedside of the survivor, Whitney Cerak, believing she was their daughter. Cerak’s family had buried 22-year-old Laura Van Ryn’s body, believing she was Whitney.

The case led to a new law in Indiana that requires coroners to use one of four methods to identify a dead person: fingerprints, DNA analysis, dental records or positive identification by an immediate family member.

— Michael Inbar, with additional reporting by The Associated Press

© 2013 MSNBC Interactive

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