Taylor University remembers lives lost, case of mistaken identity on 10-year anniversary of crash

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UPLAND, Ind. -- Taylor University is marking 10 years this week since the horrific crash that killed five people and resulted in a case of mistaken identity that became international news.

Several family members of those killed in the crash were among those who attended a special prayer service on Taylor University’s campus Monday morning.

The crash occurred on the evening of April 26, 2006. Nine people were riding a Taylor University van on I-69, returning from Fort Wayne after setting up for a luncheon the following day. Just after 8 p.m., the van was a couple miles from the Marion exit at State Road 18 when a semi truck came across the median and struck the van. Investigators would later learn the driver of the semi, Robert Spencer, had fallen asleep at the wheel before running off the northbound roadway.

The crash killed Taylor University students Brad Larson, Laurel Erb, Betsy Smith, Laura Van Ryn, and university staff member Monica Felver.

In the chaos that followed, emergency workers at the scene of the crash mixed up the identities of Laura Van Ryn and Whitney Cerak. Cerak had survived the crash, but her face was covered by bandages due to a head injury. Van Ryn’s parents arrived at Parkview Hospital in Fort Wayne, unaware that their daughter had died, and the injured and bandaged young woman in the hospital bed was actually Cerak. Meanwhile, Cerak’s family was told Whitney had been killed, even though she was alive and unconscious at the hospital.

Laura’s sister, Lisa Van Ryn, recalled the confusion during Monday’s prayer service.

“We got to the hospital and were taking care of who we thought was Laura, but it turned out to be Whitney instead,” she said. “And we wouldn’t learn that until five weeks later.”

The identity mix-up occurred when an emergency responder mistakenly clipped Van Ryn’s student ID to the injured Cerak. When Cerak’s family arrived at the hospital, they were told that no ID on the body was needed. Days later, about 1,400 Taylor University students attended the funeral and burial for Cerak. But it was actually the body of Van Ryn being laid to rest.

Taylor University President Eugene Habecker recalled visiting with Van Ryn's parents, Don and Susie, at the hospital and praying for their daughter’s recovery.

“Her head was fully bandaged, and she of course was still unconscious,” Habecker said. “I asked Don if I could hold Laura’s hand and pray for her. We didn’t know it then, but I was actually holding Whitney’s hand.”

For several weeks, the world believed Cerak had died in the crash and Van Ryn had lived. But members of the Van Ryn family started to notice curious differences between their loved one and the injured young woman they were caring for. Five weeks after the crash, a therapist asked the young woman to write her name. She was able to spell out “Whitney.”

Lisa Van Ryn, who had been documenting the treatment and recovery in a blog wrote:

"There was a misidentification at the time of the accidents and it is uncanny the resemblance that these two young women share.”

After mourning for five weeks, Whitney Cerak’s family were informed that Whitney was still alive. Laura Van Ryn’s family had to accept that Laura was gone.

Whitney’s sister, Carly later took over the blog and wrote:

"Soon after we saw Whitney, our family met with the Van Ryns and our joy for ourselves was pushed aside by the pain we felt for them. It is hard because our joy is their pain."

After recovering from her injuries, Cerak returned and graduated from Taylor University a few years later. She married her longtime boyfriend, Matt Wheeler, and the couple have three children.

The incident would later prompt Indiana lawmakers to enact stricter guidelines regarding coroners identifying victims of fatal crashes. The accident also prompted more cable barriers to be installed along interstate medians.

Robert Spencer was later arrested on five counts of reckless homicide. Investigators learned Spencer had falsified his time logs and had been on the road nine hours longer than federal law allows. Spencer pleaded guilty and served two years of a four-year sentence.

During Monday’s prayer service, Jeff Larson, said he has forgiven the truck driver who caused the crash that killed his brother, Brad.

“Over the last several years, my heart has been drawn to respond with forgiveness,” Larson said. “While I haven’t harbored resentment toward the truck driver, Robert Spencer, it did take a long time to consider forgiveness.”

“God, through his word, does not promise us freedom from hardship and suffering,” Larson continued. “But he does promise he will care for us through those times.”

Lisa Van Ryn pursued a career in physical therapy after witnessing the treatment that helped Cerak recover. She reflected on the last decade during Monday’s service.

“Betsy, Laurel, Monica, Brad and Laura,” she said. “One thing they’ve taught us among many others is that life is short. And you don’t know which day will be your last.”

Whitney Cerak (Wheeler) is expected to speak during another prayer service scheduled for Wednesday at Taylor University.