Life can throw you a curve ball at any given moment, and you never know if the outcome will be good or bad. Think about it! How many times have you crossed the road without looking and nearly got run over? How often had you had a near miss while you drove? Unfortunately, this group of Taylor University students from Indiana didn’t have a near miss, and their horrific accident left a family devastated and a community rattled. But it also resulted in an incident that changed the lives of two families.
Taylor University is one of the oldest private Christian colleges in America. And it’s safe to say that students here are driven to succeed by a strong spiritual connection. But sadly, even divine intervention wasn’t able to protect an unlucky few from a tragic date with destiny, which just comes to show that some things are just meant to be, even when they break our hearts and make us question our own faith.
It was a fateful day on April 26, 2006, when students and Taylor University staff members got in a van in Upland, Indiana, and headed to Fort Wayne, which was only an hour away. The group went there to set up a scholarship banquet for the following day and they did amazing job. Now they just needed some rest, so they headed back to Taylor University. They were planning to head home as soon as they got there, but unfortunately, fate had other plans.
The Taylor University students were on their way home. In fact, they were so close they could almost taste it. But then the unimaginable happened just a few miles away from the exit that would have led to the university. A tractor-trailer truck was driving down Interstate 69 in the opposite direction when the driver fell asleep. This caused the truck to head in the wrong direction, passed the median, and straight towards the college students’ van.
The truck and the van had collided violently! The result was an aftermath that witnesses describe as the scene of a bomb that had gone off. There was metal and carnage everywhere. And five of the nine people, University staff Monica Felver, and students Bradley Larson, Whitney Cerak, Laurel Erb, and Elizabeth Smith, had lost their lives instantly. Meanwhile, the remaining survivors were rushed to the hospital. But their lives still hung in the balance.
22-year-old Laura Van Ryn had survived, but was virtually comatose and facing certain death. Meanwhile, her sister, Lisa began a blog while her family waited and prayed for a miracle. In the blog, Lisa wrote about the accident and her sister’s slow recovery to keep family members, friends, and well-wishers aware of her progress. But she had no idea that she would end up posting something shocking when the truth was finally revealed.
Laura’s family would cling to hope, but even faith wasn’t enough to alleviate their fears, so they cried at her bedside, especially, when it seemed like Laura wouldn’t survive. Fortunately, the family had plenty of support from everyone at Taylor University, and the community. Meanwhile, the families of those who lost their lives began the grieving process. But despite the horrible events of the accident, there was an unexpected silver lining.
It seemed that everyone’s prayers had been answered when Laura woke up. Even her doctors couldn’t believe it. But the road to recovery was a long one. At first, she had problems communicating verbal, and her movements were slow and sluggish. But her family were just happy that they had their daughter back. They were also ready to give her whatever she needed to help her get through this. But when she finally regained her ability to speak, something strange happened.
At first Laura’s words didn’t make much sense. In fact, she was spewing what sounded like gibberish. But when her words began to match her thoughts, her family became very concerned and confused. It started with Laura saying “false parents.” But her parents, Don and Susie, didn’t understand what she meant by that. Then doctors assured the family that it was typical of patients to not make a whole lot of sense after suffering a serious brain injury. But something wasn’t right.
Don and Susie Van Ryn also started to notice other things about their daughter that baffled them. For one thing, Laura now had a pierced navel. Her teeth looked different too, which her parents noticed when she yawned. At first, they tried brushing all of this off, but then Laura’s roommate stopped by for a visit, and stoked the fires of this mystery. She claimed that the young woman didn’t look anything like how she remembered her, which led to a bunch of questions, like, why was she different after the accident?
It turns out that the answer had been right in front of them the entire time, but Don and Susie, as well as the rest of the Van Ryn family didn’t want to admit it. But it was Lisa who finally toughened up and asked the girl what her name was. She answered Whitney and that her parents’ names were Newell and Colleen, who were the parents of Whitney Cerak. So, as heartbreaking as it all was, dental records confirmed that it wasn’t Laura but Whitney who had survived.
Facially, Laura Van Ryn and Whitney Cerak didn’t resemble each other at all. But they had a similar body type and had blonde hair. And since the accident damaged Whitney’s face, there was no way the family could have known right away. This was great news for the Cerak family, who had just finished burying their daughter. They couldn’t believe it when their daughter called them from the hospital. Unfortunately, this was heartbreaking for the Van Ryn family.
The Van Ryn family had sat by the bedside of a stranger they assumed was their daughter, so when the truth came out, they were forced to accept that their daughter Laura was dead. But even in the midst of coming to terms with the terrible loss, they were happy for the Cerak family. They only wished that their daughter had survived too. The Van Ryn family described the feeling of joy of learning their daughter was alive to learning that she was dead like a rollercoaster of emotions.
There’s no one to blame for the mistake. When first responders found Laura’s ID card at the scene of the crash, they clipped it to Whitney, assuming that it was hers. But there was no reason for them to suspect otherwise. Even the Van Ryn family had been fooled initially. But the mistake, innocent as it might have been, became a whirlwind of pain that forever bonded the Van Ryn and the Cerak family together.
There’s one thing that the Van Ryn family had to comfort them and that was their faith. Ironically, it was faith that had kept the Cerak family together, and what brought their daughter back to them. Meanwhile, Laura’s father credits his faith for giving him and his family the strength to overcome the shocking realization. It wasn’t long before the Cerak family reached out to the Van Ryns, pushed aside their own relief and offered the family their love and support in overcoming their pain. After all, it hadn’t been that long ago that the Ceraks had gone through the grieving process, so they knew what the Van Ryns were going through. Although they couldn’t bring Laura back, the Ceraks were able to offer the Van Rysn friendship and understanding.
Whitney Cerak had gotten a second chance at life, but she grieved for those who hadn’t been so lucky. Since the incident, she has made it her mission to live the life that Laura will never get to lead. Whiney even got married to her military husband in the very same church were her own funeral was held. Today, Whitney is a mother of three adorable children. But although the Van Ryns weren’t her family, they were happy for Whitney just the same and hoped that their daughter, Laura, has found peace and happiness in the afterlife.