On April 26, 2006, a tractor trailer driven by 37-year-old Robert F. Spencer of Canton, Michigan - who had probably fallen asleep at the wheel - crossed the median and collided with a van carrying professional staff and students from Taylor University on Interstate 69 near Highway 18 in Indiana. That is in Grant County, near the town of Auburn (approximately 19 miles north of Fort Wayne). Four students - two of which were about to graduate - and one employee were killed in the accident: Laurel E. Erb, a junior art student, Bradley J. Larson, a senior history major and philosophy minor, Elizabeth A. Smith, senior and Exercise Science Major, Monica Felver (CDS employee) and Whitney E. Cerak, a freshman who had been selected to be an Orientation Group Leader. Four people were severely injured, including Laura J. VanRyn, another senior who had been about to graduate.
The accident scene was horrific: lots of blood, glass, and purses and other personal belongings strewn about. An investigation began that would put Robert Spencer in the crosshairs - there was no evidence found that he had hit the brakes at all or that there had been any mechanical failure. Laura VanRyn, who had a severe head and facial injuries, like several of the dead, was airlifted by helicopter along with Spencer and another woman in the van, Michelle Miller, to Fort Wayne's Parkview Hospital. On Thursday, May 18, VanRyn, in a coma, was released from Parkview and transported by ambulance to a medical rehabilitation facility in Grand Rapids, Michigan, which is closer to her home.
The family of Whitney Cerak held her funeral on Sunday, April 30 at the Gaylord Evangelical Free Church in Gaylord, Michigan. It was a somber affair, like any church funeral service, a gathering of friends and family to say goodbye to Whitney. Meanwhile, the family of Laura VanRyn were at her bedside as she lay in a coma, her badly injured body healing.
The preceding paragraphs were not entirely accurate.
On May 16th VanRyn's family happily reported on her blog, lauravanryn.blogspot.com, that she said "hi" several times and repeated the phrase "good morning," to her mother. At the end of the month, though, they began to notice that something was not right with Laura. She said and did "things that made (them) question whether or not she was Laura." On Monday, May 29th, the family reported that she was saying things that didn't make much sense. When the hospital staff asked her to write her name a few days later, she was able to write:
They were stunned. The girl they'd been taking care of for weeks, the girl they thought was their daughter/sister/niece was actually her friend Whitney and Laura was actually dead. The Ceraks buried Laura's body because the coroner - and apparently VanRyn's family because they had to make an identification - mixed up who was who. Both girls had an uncanny resemblance and compound that by the fact that both sustained massive injuries to the face. Her sister said she'd suffered broken bones, cuts and bruises and facial swelling in a posting to the blog.
The mix-up was proven by an examination of dental records.
The Grant County coroner said that the accident scene had been strewn with purses, and that students had identified the survivor as Laura. No scientific testing was conducted to verify the identities. Who would have thought that it would have been necessary?
"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," Coroner Ron Mowery said in an AP report. "This tragedy unfolded like we could never have imagined."
Suffice to say, they'll probably do scientific tests from now on in situations like that.
I wonder what Whitney's going to do now that she's legally dead. Does she have to get a new Social Security Number?