Wrong Taylor Univ. student identified as dead
May 31, 2006 (Last Updated: 4:58:19 PM) (WLS) -- Relief for one family, sadness for another as they realize a terrible mistake was made involving two Indiana college students who were in a crash last month. It's a gut-wrenching case of mistaken identity.
The family of Whitney Cerak was told she died in that crash. Her family just learned Cerak is actually emerging from a coma in a Michigan hospital, and her friend, believed to be in that hospital bed, actually is the one who died.
This is more pain on top of a horrible tragedy. One set of parents who had buried their daughter now discover that she is alive. Another mother and father who spent night and day at the bedside of a badly injured young woman they thought was their daughter now discover there has been a misidentification.
The accident occurred over a month ago near Ft. Wayne, Indiana. Four students and a Taylor University food services employee were killed when their van was hit by a tractor trailer. Its driver lost control of his rig after apparently falling asleep at the wheel.
One of the students pronounced dead at the scene was Whitney Cerak, 18, of Gaylord, Michigan. The lone survivor -- who was only semi-conscious until recently -- was thought to be 22-year-old Laura Van Ryn of Caledonia, Michigan. Two young ladies -- good friends -- with very similar physical characteristics.
It is not clear who made the formal identifications at the scene of the accident and later, but as the survivor began to regain full consciousness in a Grand Rapids hospital, the Van Ryn family discovered that the badly injured young woman they thought was their daughter was in fact Whitney Cerak.
"She had said a couple of things that led them to believe that maybe this wasn't their daughter. And so they approached us yesterday afternoon with these concerns," said Bruce Rossman, Spectrum health media manager.
Hospital officials say that police and the families had made ID's and there was no reason to doubt them. After the Van Ryn family alerted the hospital, a forensic dental exam was performed and the survivor was identified as Whitney Cerak. She had been badly injured and physically disfigured in the crash, but there had been no earlier fingerprinting or dental records checks on the victims.
"You have to pretty much take families at their word. And it's just one of those situations. And I don't know if there is an easy answer that can be resolved with a new rule or a new procedure," said Rossman.
The Grant County coroner says, as a result of this mix-up, they will change procedures when investigating multiple fatalities in accidents.
Taylor University is an evangelical Christian college in Indiana. The families and friends of the victims have drawn strength from their faith.
Laura Van Ryn's family issued a written statement saying "it is a sorrow and a joy for us to learn of this turn of events." They say they will "mourn Laura's going home but rejoice with the Ceraks that they will have more time on earth with their daughter," and they also rejoice in the recovery she has made.
The others killed in the crash are students Elizabeth A. Smith, 22, of Mount Zion, Ill.; Bradley J. Larson, 22, Elm Grove, Wis.; Laurel Erb, of St. Charles, Ill.; and Taylor University employee Monica Felver, 53, of Hartford City, Ind.
The group worked for the university's dining service. They were headed back to the Upland, Ind., campus after setting up for a catering job at the Fort Wayne campus.
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