The story of Laura Van Ryn and Whitney Cerak is one of sorrow turned to joy and joy turned to sorrow, of life turned to death and death turned to life. It is a story that now, two years after it made headlines across the nation and the world, can finally be told.
The title of the book the families of the two young women wrote says it all: “Mistaken Identity: Two Families, One Survivor, Unwavering Hope.”
Before appearing on TODAY on Thursday, the Van Ryns and Ceraks had not spoken to the media since their ordeal began on April 26, 2006. It was then that a van carrying five students and four employees from Taylor University, a small evangelical Christian college in Upland, Ind., was struck head-on by a tractor trailer whose driver had fallen asleep on I-69 between Indianapolis and Fort Wayne.
Five people were killed instantly. One young woman was barely breathing when she was airlifted to a hospital with several broken bones and serious head trauma. The badly injured woman was identified as Laura Van Ryn, the dead woman as Whitney Cerak.
It wasn’t until five weeks later that the families learned the identifications were wrong.
The stunning reality was first suspected by Laura’s sister, Lisa, who had been part of an enormous support group of parents, family, a boyfriend and friends who had been keeping a 24-hour vigil at the side of the injured woman. She had noticed small things over the five weeks that made her wonder about the identity of the woman they thought was Laura. But, like everyone else, she had been told the attractive blonde they were caring for was Laura, and so they had believed it.
“She’s not going to look like herself,” the medical staff had told Lisa and her parents, Don and Susie Van Ryn, when they first came to see a comatose Laura in intensive care just hours after the accident.
“She was lying in the bed and we just saw her face,” said Don Van Ryn. “She had a bandage around her head. She had a tube in her mouth and a tube in her head. We looked at that face and we said, ‘Yeah, that’s Laura.’ ”
Colleen and Newell Cerak, meanwhile, were just as certain that their daughter, Whitney, had died. Carly Cerak, Whitney’s sister and also a student at Taylor, had been the first to arrive at the hospital where the dead had been taken. She was given Whitney’s purse, which had been found near the dead body. Nobody asked her if she wanted to see the body, and she didn’t ask.
“I was too emotional to have to see the body,” Carly told TODAY’s Matt Lauer. “So they just brought me back to a separate room and gave me her purse, which was horrible, even the sight of it. It smelled like gasoline and it was just dirty. And everything inside of it was snapped. They said that the purse was found next to the body.”
Colleen Cerak, who arrived later after a long drive from Gaylord, Mich., also decided not to view the body. Whitney’s father, Newell, who was 1,000 miles away on a mission in Mississippi, did not arrive until the following day. He, too, did not ask to see the body.
The school held an emotional memorial service for the five who were killed, and then the Ceraks buried the woman they believed was their daughter. By time of the funeral, Newell Cerak said, they were at peace with their loss, their strong faith assuring them that their beloved daughter and sister was with her maker in heaven.
“The funeral was a very joyous celebration,” he told Lauer. “It was actually a celebration of what God had done in her life.”
The injured woman remained in a coma for nearly two weeks while the Van Ryns took turns sitting by her bedside, talking to her and singing to her. They had called Laura “Sunshine” because of her bubbly personality, and one of the songs they sang was “You Are My Sunshine.”
The family set up a blog and wrote daily reports on “Laura’s” progress. The Ceraks checked the blog often and even posted comments several times, letting the Van Ryns know they were praying for their daughter’s recovery.
Even though there were small things that didn’t quite fit — the injured woman’s teeth were slightly different than Laura’s, her eyes were a slightly different color and she had a pierced navel, which Laura’s family had not been aware of — the Van Ryns had been told to expect that Laura would not be the same person they had known as she came out of her coma.
“We were told various different things,” Susie Van Ryn said. “ ‘Don’t expect her to be who she was. Don’t expect big things. Don’t get too excited about things.’ ”
“She had the brain injury, and the neurons were firing but they weren’t connecting,” added her husband. “They said she may say things that don’t make any sense, she may do things that don’t make any sense.”
She called her boyfriend, Aryn, by a different name, but still it didn’t register.
Finally, she finally was able to write her name during a therapy session five weeks after her injury. But instead of writing “Laura,” she wrote “Whitney.”
Lisa was with the injured woman during the session. As she wheeled the woman she increasingly felt wasn’t her sister back to her room, she stopped and looked her in the eyes and asked her name.
“Whitney,” was the reply.
Lisa then asked the names of her parents, and the answer was Newell and Colleen, names Laura could not have known. She gave no sign of surprise or shock. Instead, she told Whitney, “That’s great. You’re doing really well.”
When Whitney was back in her room, Lisa started making phone calls. Even two years later, her mother was unable to find a single word to describe what she felt when she learned the truth.
Don Van Ryn is able to put it in perspective. “She was one of five, Matt, and we’re very cognizant that there were four other families that suffered as well, and we became one of those,” he told Lauer.
As people of faith, didn’t they ever ask, “How can God allow this to happen?”
“Not so much,” Don Van Ryn replied. “Over the years, God has shown himself to us, and we kind of know his character. We know that bad things happen to good people. We believe that God is sovereign, and he takes an active part in our lives, and even in sorrow there is joy.”
While the Van Ryns were coming to grips with the knowledge that the woman they thought was their daughter was really Whitney Cerak, Whitney’s family, alerted at 2 in the morning, was having a hard time believing that she might be alive.
Carly and her mother drove down to the rehab center in Grand Rapids, Mich., with Carly insisting that they would not find Whitney when they went inside. Newell was on another mission, this time to New York, and also had a hard time grasping the idea that a life that had been lost had suddenly been found.
Colleen and Carly walked in the room, which was dim.
“I could tell it was Whitney right away,” said Colleen.
Carly fell on her sister, hugging her and crying and ignoring the nurses who were objecting to the breach of the nighttime peace. Carly ignored the nurses. She had her sister back.
Colleen called Newell and told him, “It’s really her.”
She put the phone to Whitney’s ear so she could hear her father’s voice. And in a whisper, she spoke into the phone: “I love you, Dad.”