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.”
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
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