At the time of the incident, Laura Van Ryn was 22 years old. She was the youngest of four children, and her parents, Don and Susie, resided in Caledonia, Michigan.
Whitney Cerak, who was mi*stakenly identified as Laura Van Ryn after the crash, was 18 years old at the time. She grew up in Gaylord, Michigan, with her parents, Newell and Colleen, and her older sister, Carly.
At the time of the accident, Whitney was a freshman and Laura was a senior at Taylor University, which is a small evangelical Christian institution located in Indiana.
Despite not knowing each other well, Laura and Whitney were both outgoing and athletic individuals who had a broad network of friends. On one occasion, they worked together at Taylor University’s Fort Wayne campus to set up a banquet.
After completing their work setting up for a banquet, Laura and Whitney, along with seven other students and staff members, were traveling in a school van towards Taylor University’s main campus when the horrific incident happened.
That evening on April 26, 2006, a van from Taylor University carrying nine students and staff members collided with a tractor-trailer driven by Robert F. Spencer on Interstate 69 in Indiana.
The accident resulted in the deaths of five individuals including Laura Van Ryn. One of the survivors, Whitney Cerak, was m*istaken for Laura Van Ryn. Because of this, Whitney’s parents were called to take the body of Laura Van as their daughter while Laura’s parents were called to take care of Whitney in the hospital.
Although there were some physical similarities between the two women, their severe injuries, which included significant head trauma and an inability to communicate, resulted in local officials misidentifying the casualties. As a result, both families reacted appropriately to the situation of each casualty: Cerak was taken care of by the van Ryn family, who believed she was their daughter, while Laura was buried by the Cerak family in a marked grave at a funeral attended by 1,400 people.
However, after undergoing a five-week hospitalization, the identity of the surviving woman was called into question. It was eventually discovered that the woman was actually Whitney Cerak, not Laura van Ryn.
It took five weeks before there were indications that led to suspicion about the identity of the surviving woman. She made comments about things and people that did not align with Laura’s reality, and one of her university roommates also noticed some physical differences.
When hospital staff asked her to write down her name, she wrote “Whitney Cerak,” which was confirmed through dental records. The confusion arose from the physical similarities between Cerak and van Ryn and the chaos at the crash scene. The families of the victims did not speak publicly about the incident for nearly two years.
During the Dateline interview, it was revealed that the van Ryn family had suspicions for several days that something was not right with the patient but did not share their concerns with the hospital staff. They noticed differences in the patient’s teeth and navel piercing, which Laura did not have, and the patient referred to herself as Whitney when she emerged from her coma.
The patient also accused “her” parents of not being her real parents and told “her” sister that their parents’ names were Newell and Colleen. The van Ryns acknowledged that they sustained the misidentification for a month with the help of reassurances from the hospital staff and the distress of the situation.
While it is true that Whitney and Laura had some superficial similarities, such as being young, blonde, and attractive, there were also notable differences between them, such as their teeth, eyes, and piercing. Additionally, Whitney was around four inches taller than Laura. Therefore, it is difficult to understand how these differences were not immediately recognized.