There is no anger, no resentment, no determination to make somebody pay for a horrible mistake. That may be the most amazing aspect of the story of mistaken identity in which Whitney Cerak was thought for five weeks to be dead, and Laura Van Ryn was thought to be gravely injured.
The families of the two college students, appearing on TODAY for a second time Friday, instead expressed total acceptance of what happened because of their unwavering faith in a God whose ways are beyond human understanding.
“We're also very much aware that we live in a world that's fallen, we live in a world in which people hurt one another, and mistakes happen,” Whitney's father, Newell Cerak, told TODAY co-host Matt Lauer. “If anybody was perfect, they could throw the first stone, but nobody's perfect, even us, and even if this was a different situation — a more catastrophic situation — to me it didn't change the fact that we still are human and make mistakes.”
“We've seen God's hand in it,” added Don Van Ryn, Laura’s father.
Even by human measures, the mistakes made in the story, which the families have recounted in a new book, “Mistaken Identity,” were almost beyond comprehension.
On April 26, 2006, Whitney Cerak and Laura Van Ryn were among nine students and employees of Taylor University, a small evangelical Christian college in Indiana, returning to campus in a van after working at a banquet. A tractor trailer whose driver had fallen asleep at the wheel crossed the median of I-69 and slammed head-on into the van, killing five instantly and scattering wreckage and bodies along the Interstate.
A purse belonging to Whitney was found near the body of one of the dead, a young blond woman. Some 50 feet away from the crash, another young, blond woman was found with broken bones and a severe head injury. She was misidentified as Laura Van Ryn and flown to a trauma center.
For the next five weeks, Van Ryn's parents, Susie and Don, and sister, Lisa, along with other family members and friends, cared for the injured woman, keeping an around-the-clock vigil while she was in a coma, then accompanying her to rehab sessions and sleeping by her bed at night.
During that same time, Newell and Colleen Cerak and their daughter Carly mourned the loss of their daughter and sister, Whitney.
Lisa Van Ryn finally realized that the woman she thought was her sister was Whitney and that Laura was dead. In that moment, the Van Ryns’ joy turned to sorrow and the Ceraks’ sorrow to joy.
The Ceraks might have been angry at the Van Ryns for not realizing the mistake sooner. The Van Ryns might have resented the fact that the Ceraks had their daughter back while they had lost theirs.
Both families might have sued the truck driver, the trucking company he worked for, and anyone else they could think of.
None of the above happened, because the families believe that everything that happens is part of God’s plan, and their duty is to accept it.
“We're not special people,” said Newell Cerak. “We're not anything special in our faith. Our faith is meager, and yet God all along has been showing himself to us faithful. Even when we thought our daughter was gone, we still had great hope we'll see her again one day, just as I know Don and Susie and Lisa do today that they'll see Laura again.”
Families now close
The families weren’t acquainted before the accident, but they’ve become close since, drawn together by sorrow and joy and the faith that binds them all.
Lauer observed that many people in the Ceraks’ situation would have resented that another family had been treating Whitney as their own daughter, however unknowingly. But Colleen Cerak said the thought never occurred to her.
“When we walked in and met each other, I just said, ‘Thank you for taking care of her,’ ” she said of that first meeting with the Van Ryns after the mistake had been discovered. What she also remembers is how gracious the Van Ryns were.
“I'll never forget that they were happy for us,” Colleen Cerak went on. “I was just dying inside for them, knowing what emptiness they would face for the rest of their life, missing their daughter.”
Whitney Cerak, the woman at the center of the story, did not fully heal physically for more than a year. It took even longer before she was back to where she was mentally and emotionally before the crash.
She admitted to Lauer that during her recovery she was racked by “survivor’s guilt” that she expressed as anger.
“I was really angry one day, and I was crying, and I was like, ‘Why me? Why me?’ ” Whitney told Lauer. “And my dad said, ‘Whitney, why not you?’ It is so humbling and so amazing that God would choose me.”