The first thing you think of when you hear that someone you know has been in a car accident, is “Is everyone okay?” And until you get the answer to that question, your heart and mind are racing. For two Indiana families, one car accident would intertwine their lives forever, leaving gaping wounds in their hearts.
On April 20th, 2006 Whitney Cerak and Laura Van Ryn were working at a school event, along with four other classmates and a staff member. The two young women didn’t know each other that well but were all smiles to be working together. It was on their ride home that something terrible would happen.
The group got into the school van and were heading home when tragedy struck. The van was hit head-on by a semi-truck who swerved into the wrong lane. When first responders got to the scene everything was chaotic, and it was determined that there was only one survivor. Who actually survived the incident would remain lost in confusion for five long weeks.
During the chaos of the crash, a medic attached an ID card with the name Laura Van Ryn to the only surviving victim. Soon after, her face was bandaged up and she was rushed to the hospital with severe head and face wounds. Van Ryn’s family was notified that their daughter had survived and the Cerak family was now left with the devastating reality that Whitney was never coming home.
Or so they thought.
When Whitney’s sister was notified of her sister’s death, she rushed to the hospital. When she got there, what she thought to be her sister’s body lay right next to her covered up on a gurney, and she couldn’t bear to look, “I was too emotional to have to see the body. So they just brought me back to a separate room and gave me her purse. Which was horrible, even the sight of it. It smelled like gasoline and it was just dirty. And everything inside of it was snapped. And they said that the purse was found next to the body. Just the way it smelled, the way it looked, that that’s what happened to Whitney. And it was really hard.”
When Colleen, Whitney’s mother, was asked why she didn’t want to view her daughter’s body, she told Matt Lauer, “I keep stuff in my head and I just — I know that I couldn’t — I wanted the picture of Whitney who was just a beautiful, living, vibrant girl instead of– I would keep that picture in my head as opposed to, you know, a battered body.”
Laura’s family was also given her belongings, but one key feature that they thought was nothing, was actually a telltale sign that something wasn’t right.
The Van Ryn family received Laura’s purse, which they recognized, but there was something they didn’t, “Didn’t recognize the shoes, but we always borrow clothes and share clothes. And so we thought, ‘Oh, she must have been wearing someone else’s shoes.'” There is no way they could have known what was actually going on, and no one can blame them—teenagers share clothes all the time, especially girls.
However, what they did see that day would traumatize them forever.
When interviewed by Matt Lauer and asked what they saw when they entered the room, the family said, “Well, a lot of things that were foreign — like machines and tubes. And really she was wrapped to about here. We could see this much of her face. And she had a blanket over her and everything was wrapped up. And her eyes were closed. And a little bit of swelling, it looked like. And maybe some very minor cuts.”
Tearing up, the family went on to reveal that Lisa, Laura’s mom, started a prayer journal for her daughter.
One of the pages in the journal reads, “When they brought us in to see you, honey, my heart was so full of love for you. To see my sweet sunshine girl hooked up to tubes was almost more than I could do. It amazes me that God has such strength when I am so weak. Only he could uphold me as he has.”
Little did she know, these prayers would help another young woman heal in the months to come.
As the Van Ryn family huddled around who they thought was their daughter, they prayed that she would pull through and make a full recovery. As the lone survivor lay in a coma, the Cerak family was faced with the logistics of planning a funeral. When they service commenced, friends and family shared silly memories about Whitney and rejoiced in her loving memory.
Nevertheless, the family was devastated and went on to mourn their daughter for five weeks until a startling fact came to light.
Colleen shared what it was like to hear that her child was dead, “They had like the big projector screen. And they would flash the names of the different victims that had died. And then it just — everybody in there was just praying for that person on the screen. And — sorry I keep crying. I just remember the first time that — they put Whitney’s name up there. I thought I would really cry hard but I just felt such a peace that every single person in there was praying for our family at that point. I did really feel a real strength.”
But soon after this information came to light, she would receive news that would change everything.
Newell Cerak, Whitney’s father, shared how he felt when he received the devastating news, “It was surreal. It just seemed like the world was going on. And it just should stop, because my — of the pain I was feeling.”
This feeling is something many people feel after the death of a loved one, but Newell was about to get the surprise of his life.
In a strange twist of fate, the day before Whitney’s funeral the family held a visitation, and it was actually her birthday. The young woman was always a big fan of birthdays, so the family thought a nice way to remember her would be playing a birthday party video on a hospital television.
To their surprise, many, many people came to share tender moments with Whitney’s parents, “It was really good to hear the laughter, too, there. I mean the laughter just made you understand and realize that Whitney’s life, even though it was short, you know, really had an impact.”
When the young women awoke from a coma, she was able to write her name on a piece of paper. When everyone realized the name on the paper didn’t match who they thought she was, everyone was in utter shock. Devastated they had been wrong about her identity, the Van Ryn family did something that left everyone speechless.
“The Van Ryns, they loved me like I was their daughter because they believed that I was their daughter,” Cerak said when interviewed 10 years after the incident. “And even after I wrote ‘Whitney’ and their world changed and they knew that I wasn’t their daughter, they still treated me like I was their family,” she continued.
Although Whitney had survived, her pain didn’t end there.
Being the only one who survived the accident, Whitney suffered from tremendous survivors guilt for years to come. Although there is a silver lining to this tragedy, and it came in the form of progress. Due to the type of accident, officials put up more and better highway barriers in the area, and lawmakers passed more detailed protocols for coroners when identifying victims so that another family doesn’t have to go through the same confusion.