This case of mistaken identity began when Whitney, Laura and seven others from Taylor University in Indiana were heading home after working at an event 15 miles off campus. A semitruck lost control and barreled across the median and into their van.
Jennifer and Tom were driving behind the semitruck and pulled over when they saw the accident. Although the horrific accident left five people dead on the scene, one young woman lay fighting for her life. "We wanted to be sure that we could help anybody that needed it, and that's when we noticed the blond girl," Jennifer says. "I stood over her, and I kept saying, 'Baby, hang on.' I did for her what I would want if that was my child laying there."
An official on the scene found Laura's purse next to Whitney. Coroner Ron Mowery explains what he believes happened next. "Someone apparently put an identification of Laura Van Ryn with the injured Whitney Cerak—and Whitney became Laura."
Jay was directed to help the injured young woman. "It was our understanding that we were transporting Laura Van Ryn," Jay says. "She wasn't able to respond to us at all."
Brianna McCard, an intensive care unit nurse, says the patient was categorized a Level 1 Trauma. "With her traumatic brain injury, swelling is extremely dangerous," she says. "The longer the brain swells, the more chances of brain death."
Miraculously, ER doctors were able to stabilize Whitney—who they believed to be Laura. They transferred her to the intensive care unit, and Laura's family was notified of what they believed to be their daughter's status.
At that point, Laura Van Ryn's body was identified as Whitney Cerak. Whitney's family was not asked to look at the body to identify it. Whitney's sister, Carly, says she did not ask to see the body. "I wouldn't want to see my sister crushed from an accident," she says. Looking back at the moment when Whitney and Laura's identities were officially switched, Coroner Mowery has regrets. "If only we had encouraged Carly to see Whitney, then maybe she would have been able to say, 'No, no, no.'"
At this point, Lisa says the family was given the purse and pair of shoes found nearby after the accident. While the purse contained Laura's school wallet, the shoes gave Lisa the first hint that something wasn't right. "We didn't recognize the shoes, but didn't really give it a second thought, thinking she probably borrowed a roommate's shoes."
With no other reason to believe the girl in the hospital wasn't their daughter, the Van Ryns started a vigil with family and friends that lasted for five weeks. Don says the family took turns at the hospital so that someone was always by her side.
Colleen says she was home alone because Carly was away at college and Whitney's father, Newell, was on a trip to build houses for Habitat for Humanity. Colleen says she had a few family friends come over while she waited for word on her daughter. "We did get a phone call from Grant County Coroner and chaplain saying that Whitney was one of the girls that didn't make it in the accident," she says. "It was just one of those phone calls that you think other people are going to get, but you're never going to get it yourself. You just dread that moment."
Colleen then had her own awful phone call to make to let Newell know what happened to their daughter. "I was waiting for the phone call," Newell says. "When the phone rang she just said, 'Newell, I'm so sorry.' I just fell to my knees and started crying."
During his eulogy, Newell offers touching words about his daughter that held a remarkable truth. "Even though Whitney didn't get her 19th birthday, she was able to pack her life with so much living," he says. "Her natural, sweet spirit, her gorgeous, dimpled smile, her giving nature, her good-hearted joking. I miss her. We all miss her. One day we will be reunited. I fully, fully believe that. I believe it with all my heart."
Stephanie Peper, one of Laura's therapists, says that when she called her patient "Laura," she would respond with a whisper, saying "Whitney." "The name 'Whitney' to me was a piece of the puzzle," Stephanie says. "But I didn't know it was the piece of the puzzle."
When Don's sister-in-law Ruthanne visited the hospital, she did not think the woman before her was Laura. In the families' book, Mistaken Identities, "Ruthanne scrunched up her face like she'd bitten into something sour. 'I don't care what anyone says, that doesn't look like Laura to me.'"
"We just assured her that's natural," Don says.
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.
Though the fact that Whitney was the survivor of the accident also meant something else—that Laura was the one who had died—Lisa says she was not thinking about it at the time. "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."
The caller asked them to bring Whitney's dental records to the hospital so they could verify the identity of the survivor. Colleen and Carly were stunned. Carly was convinced it was some kind of cruel prank. "Why someone would say that when I knew for sure there was no way it was Whitney in the hospital," she says. "I was trying to tell my mom, 'There's no way it's Whitney.'"
Colleen hung up and called a family friend named Jim, asking him to check with the coroner to make sure it was not a prank. Colleen then called Newell, who was in New York City. "I didn't know what to say," he says. "I just kept saying, 'No.'"
When Jim confirmed the coroner's story, Colleen arranged to get her daughter's dental records, and she and Carly were on the road by 3 a.m. "The first part [of the drive], we were pretty angry," Colleen says. "But the closer we got to Grand Rapids, then we started saying, 'If [the Van Ryns] couldn't recognize their daughter, what are we going to see?' And then it's almost like the panic started to hit. 'What are we going to see here?'"
In the epilogue of the book Mistaken Identities, Whitney writes that she's not quite her old self. "I think my personality is back. Maybe not as funny as I was before. I was really funny before," she jokes. "I view things in a different light now. Because of everything, I am so different now."
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 was integral to getting through this ordeal. "I know there are other people that have asked, 'How come you're not upset? How come you're not bitter?'" Newell says. "I know it's because of the forgiveness that we have experienced through our relationship and our faith."
When Don was in the hospital in the first days after the accident, he received a call on his cell phone from a lawyer who said he was from a firm that specialized in truck and automobile accidents. "I was shocked. I mean, I didn't know exactly how to react," he says. "But ultimately I said, 'I hope you find something better to do with your day,' and hung up."
Don says his family was not interested in filing a lawsuit then or now. "I just didn't see what that would gain for us. Over the years, I've learned that forgiveness and love is healthier than bitterness and vengeance," he says. "One of my favorite verses in the Bible says, 'What has the Lord required of you? To act justly. To love mercy. And to walk humbly with your God.' That one phrase—'to love mercy'—you don't see a lot of that today."
Jay is the flight paramedic who airlifted her to the hospital. Jennifer and Tom witnessed the accident and pulled over to stay by Whitney's side until help arrived. Brianna is the nurse who first bonded with Whitney in the ICU, brushing her hair every day and trying to comfort her.
"Laura's way with people, her selfless actions, and her honest compassion have been an inspiration to me," said Laura's sister, Lisa. "I hope that in whatever time I have left here, I can come close to loving people the way that she did."
The family of Laurel Erb (upper left) says she saw beauty in everyday things. They say "her imagination soared when it came to appreciating the largest or smallest facets of God's creation: a sunset, ice formations, the underside of a leaf."
Monica Felver (upper right), who worked on the Taylor University campus, was a mother of eight. Her family says, "She was the hardest worker, loyal friend, honest, loving, truest person" they have ever met.
Friends and family describe Brad Larson (lower left) as sweet, thoughtful, smart and athletic with a keen sense of humor. He loved NBA basketball and could discuss basketball trivia for hours.
Elizabeth Smith (lower right)—or Betsy as she was known—always made sure no one felt left out. If a friend was hurting, she was the first to try to help.