On April 26, 2006, a Taylor University van was transporting students and staff back to campus after they finished setting up a luncheon in Fort Wayne, Indiana.
The van was only about 15 miles from the school when a semi truck flew across the median and slammed into them head on. The truck driver, who’d fallen asleep after driving nine hours longer than allowed by federal law, was arrested on five counts of reckless homicide after falsifying his time logs.
Of the nine passengers in the van, four university students and a staff member were killed in the crash.
By the time families began arriving at the hospital, they were told students Brad Larson, Laurel Erb, Betsy Smith and Whitney Cerak, as well as staff member Monica Felver, had died.
Another student in the van, who was identified as Laura Van Ryn at the scene of the accident, lay unconscious in the hospital, her face covered in bandages due to a head injury.
In the following days, nearly 1,400 Taylor University students attended the funeral of Whitney Cerak as her family mourned the loss of their child.
But as the weeks went by, the Van Ryn family began to notice that Laura wasn’t acting like herself when she regained consciousness.
Then, five weeks after the funeral, a therapist asked Laura to write her name — but she wrote “Whitney.” Dental records confirmed what they’d begun to suspect.
The Van Ryn and Cerak families were shocked to discover that their daughters had been mistaken for one another, and that it was Whitney, not Laura, who had survived the accident.
At the scene of the crash, paramedics mistakenly clipped Laura’s ID card to Whitney, as the girls shared an “uncanny” resemblance to one another.
So as the Cerak family received new hope in learning their daughter was alive, the Van Ryn family began to mourn the death of their child five weeks after she passed.
“We have some hard news to share with you today,” the Van Ryns wrote in a blog post. “Our hearts are aching as we have learned that the young woman we have been taking care of over the past five weeks has not been our dear Laura, but instead a fellow Taylor student of hers, Whitney E. Cerak.”
Whitney’s sister Carly explained the heartbreak of the situation in another post. “Soon after we saw Whitney, our family met with the Van Ryns and our joy for ourselves was pushed aside by the pain we felt for them. It is hard because our joy is their pain,” she wrote.
Although she initially tested as severely brain damaged, Whitney eventually recovered from the accident and graduated from Taylor University a few years later. She also went on to marry her boyfriend Matt Wheeler and the couple share three children together.
The accident pushed Indiana lawmakers to “enact stricter guidelines regarding coroners identifying victims of fatal crashes” and to install more barriers along interstate medians.
Ten years after the accident, Whitney spoke at a school prayer service remembering those who’d died, and told listeners how that day has changed her life forever.
“The Van Ryns, they loved me like I was their daughter because they believed that I was their daughter,” she said. “And even after I wrote ‘Whitney’ and their world changed and they knew that I wasn’t their daughter, they still treated me like I was their family.”
Laura’s sister Lisa spoke at another service, remembering and reflecting on her life in the 10 years since the accident.
“Betsy, Laurel, Monica, Brad and Laura,” she said. “One thing they’ve taught us among many others is that life is short. And you don’t know which day will be your last.”
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