Taylor University: Crash victims' identities mixed up

5:39 PM, Jun 1, 2006   |    comments
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Grant County - A Taylor University student from Caledonia, Michigan believed to have survived a van crash five weeks ago, is actually dead. The shocking revelation confirmed by the university Wednesday also spells tragic news for a family who believed they were caring for their injured daughter. “We have some hard news to share with you today,” the family of Laura J. VanRyn said in a web site blog where it had been posting updates on the survivor's condition. “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, Whitney Cerak.” The family said a “misidentification” was made at the time of the April 26 accident and that the women shared an “uncanny” resemblance. “Their body types are similar, their hair color and texture, their facial features, etc.,” the family said. Cerak, 18, of Gaylord, Mich., is a freshman at the university, while VanRyn, 22, of Caledonia, Mich., was a senior. Over the past couple of days, as Cerak had become more aware of her surroundings, she had been “saying and doing some things that made us question whether or not she was Laura,” the family said. On Tuesday, the VanRyns began the process of making a positive identification “We now know without a doubt that this is Whitney,” they said. Recovering at a rehabilitation facility in Grand Rapids, Mich., Cerak, according to a Taylor University statement, only recently begun to emerge from a coma that she had fallen into since the night of the accident. It said the Grant County Coroner's office notified the university this morning that VanRyn was “instead one of the five people who died that evening.” “One can only imagine what impact this new development has had upon the VanRyn and Cerak families as they process this information,” the university said. Taylor University spokesman Jim Garringer said the news left the campus in a state of “tremendous shock.” “We are grateful, certainly, for the Cerak family and grieved for the VanRyn family,” he said. “I think right now we're numb,” he added. “In some ways, this brings us back to April 26 all over again.” The collision happened about two miles north of the Marion exit in Grant County. According to a preliminary investigation of the crash, a northbound 1996 Freightliner semi-tractor trailer owned by Mike Brooks Inc., Knoxville, Iowa, and loaded with baking flour, crossed through the median and collided with a southbound passenger van carrying the victims. The crash tore through the entire van's driver's side, causing several of the van's occupants to be ejected from the vehicle. Also killed in the crash were students Elizabeth A. Smith, 22, from Mount Zion, Ill., Bradley J. Larson, 22, from Elm Grove, Wis., Laurel E. Erb, 20, from St. Charles, Ill., and university employee Monica Felver, 53, from Hartford City, Ind. Grant County Prosecutor James Luttrull Jr. is reviewing the findings of the crash to determine whether criminal charges are warranted. According to statements from witnesses, trucker Robert F. Spencer, 37, of Michigan, fell asleep at the wheel before his semitrailer drifted across the median midway between Fort Wayne and Indianapolis and hit the university van, investigators have said. A memorial service for VanRyn was scheduled for 3 p.m. Sunday at Kentwood Community Church in Grand Rapids.

Taylor University Statement New Details Learned About Van Accident May 31, 2006 All of us know the pain we have experienced over the past five weeks since that tragic evening during which we lost five members of our community – four students and one staff member – in an accident on I-69. As deeply as we have grieved these respective losses, the feelings of pain and sorrow we have experienced pale in comparison to the pain experienced by their respective families and loved ones. This morning, we learned from the Grant County Coroner's Office that there has been a case of mistaken identity involving two of the young women involved in the accident. We had believed that Laura VanRyn was airlifted to Parkview Hospital and has recently begun to emerge from the coma she was in since the night of the accident. The Coroner's office has notified us that Laura was instead one of the five people who died that evening and that it was Whitney Cerak who was airlifted to Parkview and is today convalescing at a hospital in Grand Rapids, MI. One can only imagine what impact this new development has had upon the VanRyn and Cerak families as they process this information. Taylor University is cooperating fully with the Coroner's Office. We ask that prayers be offered for the VanRyn and Cerak families, and also for the families of Laurel Erb, Monica Felver, Brad Larson, Betsy Smith, as well as the Taylor Community including students, faculty, staff and administrators deeply affected by this development.

By Theodore Kim theodore.kim@indystar.com

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