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Crash victim thought dead marvels at life in book

Whitney Cerak was critically injured in a highway crash that killed five others, and then mourned as dead by relatives and friends after her identity was mixed up with another student.She still marvels at being alive."I'm the only person I know who's listened to her own funeral," the 20-year-old says in the epilogue of a new book, "Mistaken Identity: Two Families, One Survivor, Unwavering Hope," w
/ Source: The Associated Press

Whitney Cerak was critically injured in a highway crash that killed five others, and then mourned as dead by relatives and friends after her identity was mixed up with another student.

She still marvels at being alive.

"I'm the only person I know who's listened to her own funeral," the 20-year-old says in the epilogue of a new book, "Mistaken Identity: Two Families, One Survivor, Unwavering Hope," written by the families whose lives were intertwined in an ordeal of joy, sorrow and faith. "That was pretty weird."

Cerak, a student at Indiana's Taylor University who grew up in Gaylord, Michigan, spent five weeks in a coma while the parents of Laura Van Ryn stood vigil by her side, believing she was their daughter.

Authorities in Grant County, Indiana, had confused the two young women during the chaotic aftermath of the collision between a semi-truck and a school van on the Interstate 69 highway. Their blond hair and even some facial features were similar.

Cerak's parents, Newell and Colleen Cerak, declined to view the body they believed was their daughter's, preferring to remember Whitney as she had appeared in life.

Meanwhile, Don and Susie Van Ryn _ and others who knew Laura _ believed her appearance had been altered by facial injuries. Only when she began mentioning strange names while slowly regaining consciousness did they suspect something was amiss, the 275-page book explains.

One day, her physical therapist asked the patient to write her name on a sheet of paper. "WHITNEY," the woman wrote. As her father wheeled her back to her room, she mumbled, "False parents."

Uncertainty gnawing at her, Van Ryn's sister, Lisa, watched a "memories of Whitney" video the family had been sent. The eyes, the teeth, eerily resembled those of the person she thought was her sister.

Her father checked with one of the people who had identified the victims at the crash scene. There was "room for doubt," the person admitted.

Finally, after another therapy session, Lisa knelt in front of the young woman and asked her name. Whitney, was the response. And her last name? Cerak.

The Van Ryns were devastated, but quickly arranged for dental records to be checked.

That night, Colleen Cerak was awakened by a phone call from the Grant County coroner. "We have reason to believe your daughter may be alive," he said. Whitney's sister, Carly, furiously urged her mother to hang up, believing it was a prank.

But within hours, they stood at Whitney's bedside, sobbing with joy.

"Mistaken Identity," co-written with author Mark Tabb and published by Howard Books, a division of Simon & Schuster, weaves together narrative and religious testimony.

Both families are deeply committed Christians; Newell Cerak is a church pastor.

They say although uncomfortable in the media spotlight, they are telling their story to share "how God has sustained two families through His grace." They have heard from people around the world who were inspired by their strong faith.

The book also is a story of healing _ for the Ceraks, Van Ryns and others.

Whitney has made a remarkable recovery and is on track to graduate from Taylor next year, university spokesman Jim Garringer told The Associated Press. She is spending this semester in Ireland in a study-abroad program.