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Families bonded over emotional mistaken identity case find strength in faith

Two families bonded by an emotional case of mistaken identity following a fatal auto accident have found strength in their faith.
/ Source: TODAY

Four years after she was declared dead, Whitney Cerak Wheeler got married in the same church where her funeral was once held in the aftermath of a stunning case of mistaken identity that captivated the country.

On TODAY Tuesday, Wheeler, now a mother of three, was joined by her husband, children and parents along with the family of Laura Van Ryn, the woman who was involved in the mix-up that changed both families forever. The interview with the families is part of a week-long TODAY series called, "Where Are They Now?" that explores news stories that captivated a nation through the eyes of the people who experienced them.

"There are just some things that can't be explained, but the faith that we have in God has gone so deep," Don Van Ryn, Laura's father, told Matt Lauer. "Even in the midst of the crisis it's been that which really has given us the strength to get through all of this."

On April 26, 2006, a tractor-trailer collided with a van filled with nine students and staff members from Taylor University on an Indiana highway, killing five immediately, including a student the coroner initially identified as Wheeler. A fellow student who bore a resemblance to Wheeler, Laura Van Ryn, 22, was identified as alive but in critical condition and unable to communicate.

For five weeks, the Van Ryns sat by her bedside as she recovered, but one day when she yawned, they noticed that her teeth looked different than Laura's. The woman also had a navel piercing, which Laura did not have, leading to a startling confirmation.

"I said, 'Can you tell me your name?' And she said, 'Whitney,''' Lisa Van Ryn, Laura's older sister, told Dateline in 2012.

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That meant the Van Ryns had lost a daughter, while the Ceraks regained the daughter they thought they had buried a month earlier. In 2010, Whitney married boyfriend Matt Wheeler, a member of the military who has done two tours in Afghanistan and will be heading to Iraq in December. They now have two girls and a boy.

Wheeler still has no memory of the time the Van Ryns stayed by her bedside, but both families remain close.

"We love the Cerak family, and we catch up on what's been happening and just encourage each other,'' Don Van Ryn said.

"What a joy to see Whitney and Matt with their three kids,'' Susie Van Ryn, Laura's mother, told Lauer. "It's wonderful. It's nothing but joy for them."

Follow writer Scott Stump on Twitter.