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06-01-06, 02:22 AM
Damn, really sad story. Here's the short version: A month ago, a van full of teens was hit by a tractor trailer. One girl survived, but was in a coma. Her family kept by her bedside, and the teens killed in the wreck were buried.

The girl woke up today, but the family discovers that this isn't their daughter. Apparently their daughter did die in the accident, and was buried under the identity of this coma girl. The accident was so bad that neither girl was properly identified.

However it must be pretty happy news for this girls family. They thought they buried their daughter a month ago, only to find out that she's still alive.


CALEDONIA, Michigan (AP) -- The casket was closed for Whitney Cerak's funeral more than a month ago. Her mother, Colleen, declined to look at the body, battered as it was in a collision between a van and a tractor-trailer.

"They wanted to remember her the way she was," said Cerak's grandfather, Emil Frank.

Meanwhile, the family of Laura VanRyn, another victim of the crash, kept vigil by a hospital bed. The severely injured young woman was in a coma for a time, but the family's blog detailed the many small steps she made toward recovery: feeding herself applesauce, playing Connect Four with a therapist. (Watch as the coroner explains "tragedy upon tragedy" -- 2:50)

But as her condition improved, Laura Van Ryn's family realized they had the wrong woman, and Colleen Cerak realized she had not buried her daughter.

The family of VanRyn, 22, disclosed the mix-up Wednesday on their blog. "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 university student of hers, Whitney Cerak, they wrote.

The shock was equal but joyous for the family of Cerak, whose funeral drew 1,400 in her hometown of Gaylord, Michigan. "I still can't get over it. It's like a fairy tale," Frank said.

VanRyn and Cerak, 18, both students at Indiana's Taylor University, were in a university van when a truck crossed the median of Interstate 69 and collided with it April 26. Five of the 10 students and staff on board died.

The Grant County, Indiana, coroner's office apologized for the error Wednesday evening. But the VanRyns, who are from Caledonia, Michigan, said their daughter and Cerak bore an "uncanny resemblance."

Cerak suffered facial swelling, broken bones and cuts and bruises, and was in a neck brace.

The family said that as the young woman began regaining consciousness at a rehabilitation center in Grand Rapids, Michigan, she said things that made them question her identity.

As recently as Monday, the VanRyns reported, "While certain things seem to be coming back to her, she still has times where she'll say things that don't make much sense."

In a statement, the two families said they took their concerns to hospital officials, and dental records confirmed that the injured woman was Cerak.

"Both families understand how this could have happened," said Bruce Rossman, a spokesman for Spectrum Health, which operates the rehab center.

Officials at Taylor University, an evangelical Christian college in Upland, Indiana, about 60 miles northeast of Indianapolis, confirmed the case of mistaken identity.

"We rejoice with the Ceraks. We grieve with the VanRyns," said Taylor spokesman Jim Garringer. He said the Grant County coroner notified the school of the error.

Coroner Ron Mowery described an accident scene strewn with purses and wallets and said acquaintances of the students had identified the survivor as VanRyn. No scientific testing was conducted to verify the identifications.

"I can't stress enough that we did everything we knew to do under those circumstances, and trusted the same processes and the same policies that we always do," Mowery said. "And this tragedy unfolded like we could never have imagined."

Word of the mix-up began to circulate Wednesday morning at Gaylord High School, said Cerak's volleyball coach, Jen Mazza.

"I don't know what to feel right now. You're elated but you almost don't want to trust it," Mazza said. "Right now we just want to get her home and see her for ourselves. ... Everyone who was touched and grieving for Whitney will be grieving for the other family. We've been there."

Joe Sereno, associate pastor at Gaylord Evangelical Free Church, said what had been thought to have been Cerak's casket had been closed both for visitation and for the funeral.

"We did everything you usually do," Sereno said. "We had a memorial service at the church. The family did a private burial the next day. Everybody thought it was Whitney."

VanRyn and Cerak, like others in the van, worked for Taylor's dining services and were preparing for a banquet for the inauguration of a president of the 1,850-student school.

Calls to the VanRyns and Ceraks were not immediately returned, and a young man outside the VanRyns' home declined a reporter's requests for comment. An attorney for the Cerak family did not return a call either.

Prosecutors are weighing criminal charges against the truck driver, saying he may have fallen asleep at the wheel.

A memorial service for VanRyn is scheduled Sunday near Grand Rapids.

06-01-06, 03:52 AM
Holy crap. I can't even begin to fathom what either family would of dealt with even before that tragic twist. It's amazing and sad that stuff like this still happens in this day and age.

ChiTownAbs, Inc
06-01-06, 08:32 AM
Yup, it's pretty big news in the Chicagoland area. The VanRyn's actually kept a blog of "their daughter's" recovery process.


Canis Firebrand
06-01-06, 08:41 AM
Big news in the Detroit papers as well as both were from northern Michigan, it hit front page on both.

The Detroit Free Press (http://www.freep.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=2006606010464)
The Detroit News (http://www.detnews.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20060601/METRO/606010392)

Mrs. Danger
06-01-06, 11:00 AM
That's why everyone should get distinctive tattoos.

06-01-06, 11:01 AM
Huge news for Northern MI too.


06-01-06, 01:14 PM
(from a different article)
...No one thought to check dental records until the young woman started waking up from her closed head injury. She started to say more things, and the things she said made the VanRyn family wonder.

"She was saying that her name was Whitney..."

I wonder how the finances will work out.

The hospital stay has been very expensive, of course, and has been billing the VanRyn family (or their insurance). Does the VanRyn family ask for a refund of any monies paid?

06-01-06, 06:40 PM
so was her face completely covered in bandages or something?

06-01-06, 07:01 PM
If she could talk, I'm surprised she didn't say "where are my parents?" But obviously it happened and I'm sure there's a lot more to the story.

Pretty messed up though - happy and sad all rolled into one.

06-01-06, 07:30 PM
I guess if they looked very similar, it would be easy to mix them up. Still, the mother or some close relatives should have been the ones to id the bodies and not acquaintances of the students. Incredible story ... very twisted for the families involved - sad.

On an unrelated note, the "Gaylord Evangelical Free Church" must be the most progressive church in the world. :)

06-01-06, 08:53 PM

A few parts in the Free Press article actually made me laugh:

But she seemed frustrated at times.

She tried to tear her neck brace off at one point. At another, she took a swing at one of the VanRyns.

She was probably thinking "Who are you crazy people?"

"Over the past couple of days, as Whitney had been becoming more aware of her surroundings, she'd been saying and doing things that made us question whether or not she was Laura."

Bruce Rossman, a spokesman for the hospital, said the VanRyns told him of their suspicions.

"When she was called 'Laura,' she would say 'Whitney,' " Rossman said.

Gee, what could have tipped them off?

06-01-06, 09:21 PM
Story in Grand Rapids Press (http://www.mlive.com/news/grpress/index.ssf?/base/news-29/1149173734170970.xml&coll=6)

2nd story in Grand Rapids Press (http://www.mlive.com/news/grpress/index.ssf?/base/news-29/1149173400126560.xml&coll=6)

Photo Gallery of the girls, unmarked grave, and van. (http://www.mlive.com/grgallery/galleries/gallery.ssf?cgi-bin/view_gallery.cgi/mlive/view_gallery.ata?g_id=3088)

06-02-06, 07:55 AM
It's really ridiculous that this happened. The dead girl's roommate told college officials that she didn't think the survivor was her roommate and they just sat on the info and did nothing, because they didn't want to create a 'public display'.


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