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How tragic identity switch changed two families

Two families forever linked in an incredible case of mistaken identity — tragic for one, miraculous for the other — continue to forge ahead while staying friends and finding meaning in the gift of life.The TODAY show Thursday revisited the powerful story of the Cerak and Van Ryn families, inextricably linked by a horrific crash three years ago that gripped America with its startling twist. On
/ Source: TODAY contributor

Two families forever linked in an incredible case of mistaken identity — tragic for one, miraculous for the other — continue to forge ahead while staying friends and finding meaning in the gift of life.

The TODAY show Thursday revisited the powerful story of the Cerak and Van Ryn families, inextricably linked by a horrific crash three years ago that gripped America with its startling twist. On August 26, 2006, a van carrying five students and a staff member from Taylor University in Indiana collided with a semitrailer.

Only one student survived, and local police made a fateful error, confusing two young women with strikingly similar looks. As a result, the Ceraks were told that their daughter Whitney had died, and the Van Ryns were told their daughter Laura was clinging to life.

For five weeks, Don and Susie Van Ryn stood vigil over the young woman they believed to be their daughter, until she recovered enough to be released from the hospital and admitted to a private care facility. There a therapist asked the patient listed as Laura Van Ryn to write her name, and she wrote “Whitney.”

Meaning in tragedy

But a story that might have been merely shocking became an inspiring one of courage and love as the Cerak and Van Ryn families formed a bond of love and support that still continues three years later. Speaking live on the TODAY set, Whitney Cerak told Matt Lauer she still feels gratitude for the care and love the Van Ryns showed her during her convalescence, and feels compelled to “do something amazing” with her life.

Whitney will start that journey this summer after she graduates from Taylor University, joining her sister Carly in Mombasa, Kenya, to live and work at an orphanage in that African country.

“I am going to do something great, and that will continue for the rest of my life,” Whitney told Lauer.

Whitney was joined on TODAY by her father, Newell Cerak, and Lisa Van Ryn, sister of the late Laura Van Ryn. Lisa told Lauer that the life-altering experience of caring for a woman she believed to be her sister changed her goals in life and her choice of an occupation.

“I greatly enjoyed helping Whitney through her therapy sessions, so I went back to school after the incident and just recently finished up a PTA [physical therapy assistant] program,” Lisa told Lauer, adding, “I would love to work with children in a school somewhere.”

Family ties

Newell Cerak told TODAY the families remain close, even collaborating on a book, “Two Families, One Survivor, Unwavering Hope.” The families have gotten together regularly to have dinner and discuss their shared experience. And while Don and Susie Van Ryn are moving from their native Michigan’s Lower Peninsula to the more distant Upper Peninsula, Cerak said the Van Ryns will always be near and dear to his family’s hearts. “They are doing as good as can be expected,” he said. “We so love them.”

“Even today, when I hear her voice on the phone, I still get excited and chills about that,” he told Lauer. “Each day we get that chance to talk with her, it just reminds us again of the amazing blessing that we have.”

Still, residual sadness continues to creep in for Whitney and the Van Ryns. Whitney told Lauer being the only one alive from the horrific crash still gnaws at her. “There’s that survivor’s guilt, I struggle with that.”

Sad anniversary

The third anniversary of Laura’s death comes next week, but sister Lisa says her family doesn’t mark it with elaborate gestures. “We miss her every day — it’s the everyday things you think about more,” she explained.