GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. -- In a tragic case of mistaken identity, the family of an Indiana college student believed to have survived a multiple-fatality crash in late April said yesterday that their daughter was dead, while the parents of a student thought to have died in that collision learned their daughter was alive in a Michigan hospital.
The sad and extraordinary story came to light on a Web log set up by the family of Laura VanRyn, a 22-year-old student from Caledonia, Mich. Her relatives had kept a five-week vigil at the Grand Rapids hospital bed of the young woman they thought was their daughter.
Uncertainty about the woman's identity grew this week as she regained consciousness, and dental records confirmed the student the VanRyn family had been watching over was 18-year-old Whitney Cerak of Gaylord, Mich.
The Cerak family had unknowingly buried VanRyn on April 30, in the northern Michigan woods about 180 miles north of Grand Rapids.
"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," the VanRyns said on their blog.
Authorities in Indiana were trying to unravel the heartbreaking mix-up yesterday, five weeks after five people - including four students from Taylor University, a small evangelical Christian college in Upland, Ind. - were killed in a crash on Interstate Highway 69, near Marion.
Confusion apparently began in the hectic moments after the deadly April 26 crash involving a semi-tractor-trailer loaded with baking flour and the Taylor University van, returning from nearby Fort Wayne, Ind. Grant County, Ind., Coroner Ron Mowery, whose office handled the death investigations, apologized for the mix-up during a news conference yesterday.
He described an accident scene where purses and wallets were strewn about and said acquaintances of the students had identified as VanRyn the survivor taken to a Fort Wayne hospital. He said 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 told reporters in Marion. "And this tragedy unfolded like we could never have imagined."
The truth about the identities of the two young women began to take shape in recent days, as the VanRyns watched Cerak slowly recover from serious head and neck wounds at a Grand Rapids rehabilitation center for victims of brain damage. Bruce Rossman, a spokesman for Spectrum Health System in Grand Rapids, said the VanRyn family's doubts mounted as Cerak gained more awareness of her surroundings.
"They said a couple of times they called her Laura and she said, 'No, Whitney,'" Rossman said.
The two families conferred Tuesday, Rossman said, and requested that dental records be checked. By Tuesday night the families knew the young woman was not Laura VanRyn. Twelve hours later, at midmorning yesterday, dental records proved the recovering woman was Cerak.
Rossman said he did not know the specific nature of Cerak's injuries or the extent to which her identity would have been obscured by wounds, bandages or other markings. "There was some general trauma associated with the accident, including bruising and swelling," he said. The families issued a joint statement yesterday, saying these "two wonderful young women shared a striking similarity in size, hair, facial features and body type."
"Our families are supporting each other in prayer, and we thank our families, friends and communities for their prayers," the families said in a prepared statement.
In Laura VanRyn's hometown of Caledonia, friends and residents were stunned. Memorial Day flags were still flying along Main Street in the community of 1,100 people when the schools sent home a flier saying Laura VanRyn was dead.
Monte Munjoy, a middle school physical education teacher who knew VanRyn, said teachers were given the news at a staff meeting, "and everybody's jaw just hit the floor."
Brenda Tuttle, whose son attended school with VanRyn, called the news devastating.
"You can't imagine losing a child, then you think your daughter is gone but she's not, or you think your daughter is alive but is not," Tuttle said. "I can't imagine how you would handle something like that."
Five weeks ago, the local newspaper in Gaylord, the Herald Times, published an obituary for Whitney Cerak. It read, "She lived a wonderful, full, but short life." The casket was closed for the funeral.
Russell Working and Tim Jones write for the Chicago Tribune.