Whitney Cerak was a Taylor University student in 2006 when a semitruck with a sleeping driver, crossed the center median and hit the van she was riding in, along with five of her friends. Whitney died in the crash and the lone survivor was Laura Van Ryn, except that… (see video below)
…wasn’t really the way it happened. For five long weeks, the Van Ryns believed their daughter was alive and trying to come out of a coma. The Ceraks thought their daughter was dead. They buried Whitney four days after the accident, but Whitney was actually the survivor and Laura Van Ryn died with four others.
Whitney’s family did not want to see her in death, and they were not asked to identify their daughter and sister by the coroner. The Van Ryns were prepared by medical staff for seeing their daughter, severely injured from the accident, with head and brain injuries. Her face was mostly covered with bandages. There were tubes everywhere, there cuts and bruises. The family was given Laura’s purse with her i.d., and shoes they did not recognize. For five weeks, the Van Ryn family sat by the side of the young woman they believed to be their daughter. For five weeks, Laura’s boyfriend Aryn Linenger also kept vigil. Hear him speak in the video below.
The Cerak family was dealing with losing Whitney. The funeral for their daughter was four days after the accident. They buried Whitney before her 19th birthday, or so they thought.
As the Van Ryns stood vigil and their daughter began to come out of her coma, the sister-in-law of Mr. Van Ryn said “I don’t care what anyone says, that doesn’t look like Laura to me.” Don Van Ryn assured her that what she was seeing was “natural” due to injuries, but then, one of the rehab specialists said Laura called her parents “false parents.”
Then a therapist noticed that when she called Whitney “Laura,” her patient would whisper back “Whitney.” There was a pierced bellybutton that Laura’s sister was shocked about and had not seen before.
It was Laura’s sister, Lisa, who was present at the moment it became clear that Laura was actually Whitney Cerak:
Lisa recalls the exact moment she realized the person she’d stayed with in the hospital for five weeks was not her sister. After one therapy session, Lisa was alone with Whitney. Once again, Whitney said her name. Then she told Lisa her last name was “Cerak” and her parents were “Newell and Colleen.” “I knew in that moment that she was right. Our suspicions had been building, and I just knew,” Lisa says.
“The moment that she said, ‘Whitney’—and I knew that to be true in my heart—that was the moment we had been waiting for. For this person that we had been loving to say something that makes absolute sense, finally,” she says. “That sounds crazy because I’m learning that it’s not my sister. But in that moment, it was all about this girl that we had been caring for. Later I would think about my own sister being gone.”
Newell and Colleen Cerak, Whitney’s parents, received another call from the coroner asking for their daughter’s dental records. The miracle was confirmed, Whitney survived. Today, she has recovered completely.
The Cerak family says if there are any changes in Whitney, they are small. “We look at Whitney and the smile is back. I mean, everything is back. Cognitively, she does a great job,” Newell says. “As far as we’re concerned, it’s Whitney from before.”
Whitney says she has no memory of the accident and little of what happened in the hospital before her family arrived. “I remember working the banquet before. … Then we went out to pizza afterward,” she says. “Then I remember standing by the car ready to get in, and that’s the last thing I remember.”
Both the Van Ryn and Cerak families say their faith in God got them through the tragedy. Neither family wanted to sue anyone. The families are close and Whitney says the Van Ryns are able to “look me in the eye.” She is grateful for their love and support.
Along with 457 other students in Upland, Indiana, Whitney graduated Taylor University in May 2009 with a major in Psychology.
“I am now looking to do something great,” she said.
The Van Ryns and Ceraks wrote a book along with Mark Tabb: Mistaken Identity: Two Families, One Survivor, Unwavering Hope.
The small, Christian evangelical school, Taylor University dedicated a chapel to Laura and the four who perished with her: Laurel Erb, Moniva Felver, Brad Larson and Elizabeth “Betsy” Smith. Seriously injured in the crash besides Whitnet were University dining services staff members Connie Magers, Michelle Miller and Vickie Rhodes.