This story originally aired on Dateline NBC on March 28, 2008, and an update ran on Dec. 26, 2008.
Colleen Cerak: I always feel like I lived a charmed life. Great husband. Two kids. You know, had a nice job. Lived in a great town. So I just -- you kind of almost feel like you're waiting for something to happen.
Matt Lauer: Do you ever question, Susie, how God could have let this happen?
Susie Van Ryn: Sure. You want to say that. And yet I don't have to look very far to see that it happens all the time. It happens everywhere to anyone. And why should I be any different?
This is a story about two families on an emotional journey unlike anything you've seen before. It's a story of deep faith and undying love -- and how both were tested to the limit by an almost unimaginable twist of fate.
It begins with two lovely young women whose lives became intertwined forever on a cool spring evening in 2006.
Laura Van Ryn was 22 at the time. Her parents, Don and Susie, lived in Caledonia, Mich. Laura was the youngest of four children.
She had an older sister, Lisa, and two brothers, Kenny and Mark. Laura and her boyfriend, Aryn, had been dating for three years. Everybody knew they'd get married.
Matt Lauer: What was she like as a child growing up? Mom?
Susie Van Ryn: Happy. Giggly, joyful. Just loved being wherever everybody was. She was a lot of fun. Liked everybody. Everybody liked her because she was just real and genuine.
Whitney Cerak was 18. She grew up in GayLord, Mich., with her parents, Newell and Colleen, and her older sister, Carly.
Colleen Cerak: Whitney was just an amazing girl. I know I’m partial because I’m her mom, but she was just a lot of fun to be with. She made people feel special. She made us feel special.
Whitney was a freshman and Laura a senior, at Taylor University, a small evangelical Christian school in Indiana.
Newell Cerak: This sounds maybe quaint. But a real family feeling that you're connected with so many other people there.
Laura and Whitney were both outgoing and athletic, with a wide circle of friends. They didn't know each other well, but one night they worked together at Taylor's Fort Wayne campus, setting up a banquet.
Matt Lauer: Susie, did you talk to Laura that day?
Susie Van Ryn: Actually, I had tried to call her phone between 8:00 and 8:30 that evening. I didn't get through and so I thought, "Well, I’ll call her later."
Matt Lauer: How about you, Lisa?
Lisa Van Ryn: We had been playing phone tag up to that day. And she left me a message, I believe on their trip up to Fort Wayne. And I hadn't called her back.
At about 8 p.m., their work done, Laura and Whitney, along with seven other students and staff members, were riding in a school van. The were heading south on interstate 69, towards the main campus. Whitney's sister Carly -- also a student at Taylor -- was the first to hear that something was wrong.
Carly Cerak: My friend Ben drove up and told me that there was an accident. And he thought that Whitney was in it. So I called her cell phone and there was no answer. Then I started to kind of worry. And I called her cell phone again and again. And now I just started noticing people just kind of running around everywhere and coming up to me and talking to me and asking me if I had talked to Whitney.
Matt Lauer: Did they talk about the severity of the accident at that time to you?
Carly Cerak: I was hearing that people had died in the accident, but not everyone had died.
Carly and Whitney’s mom was home in GayLord, a five-hour drive away. Their father was on a church trip in Mississippi. Carly tried to call them both but couldn't get through at first.
Colleen Cerak: We were talking on the phone. It was about 10:00. And--
Newell Cerak: Right.
Colleen Cerak: And so Newell kept on hearing, you know, that little beep on the phone. And--
Matt Lauer: Call waiting.
Colleen Cerak: --Carly--
Matt Lauer: Someone was trying to get through.
Newell Cerak: Yeah. Yeah.
Colleen Cerak: Kind of ignored it because we had just had a chance to kind of catch up on what was going on. So then she tried me and that's when, you know, she didn't talk long at all. She was just like, "Mom, you just need to pray." And so we just -- you know -- it was kind of scary. I just started praying.
At about the same time, Laura Van Ryn's parents and sister were all at home in Caledonia. Their phone rang as well.
Susie Van Ryn: Someone said, "Is this the Van Ryn residence?" and I thought maybe it was a telemarketer or something. And I was all ready to say, "We’re not interested." And I think he said something like, "We have your daughter, Laura, in the hospital in Fort Wayne. She's been in an accident." And it took me a second or so to kind of grasp that. And then I just looked at Don and I said, "I think you better get on the phone."
Don Van Ryn: And he told us that there had been an accident, a serious accident. And she was in critical condition. And that we would need to, you know, start making our way down there.
Within minutes they were speeding toward Indiana, a two-and-a-half hour drive. They kept getting phone calls from the hospital. And they struggled to grasp the severity of Laura’s injuries.
Lisa Van Ryn: She was unconscious--
Susie Van Ryn: --unconscious--
Lisa Van Ryn: --is what they told us in the car.
Susie Van Ryn: Right. And-- did we know then that she had some broken bones, perhaps?
Don Van Ryn: Probably. And we knew then that she had a head injury, because they were calling to get our permission to put the spike, they call it -- tube into her head that monitors swelling or bleeding of the brain. So we gave them that permission of course.
Matt Lauer: You're hours away. And you're hearing about all of these things that are happening because of the grave condition of your daughter. Can you compare it to anything in your lives?
Don Van Ryn: I don't think so. No.
Susie Van Ryn: You want to believe that accidents happen a lot. They're not always fatal and, you know, so that's what you're thinking. She's alive. They can fix this. And all you can say is, "God, just take care of her. Please. Be with her and keep her alive."
Meanwhile Whitney’s parents were still desperate for any news about their daughter.
Newell Cerak: I was beside myself. I just didn't -- I needed information and I couldn't get it. I didn't want to tie up the phone because I knew -- I was hoping and praying Colleen would get in touch with me.
Colleen Cerak: Just pleaded. Just pleaded with God -- just not Whitney.
What neither family knew yet was just how deadly the crash had been.
A truck driver had lost control of his loaded semi. The big rig crossed the median and sideswiped the Taylor University van, ripping it open. The impact flung passengers and their belongings all over the interstate.
Five of the nine people on the van were killed instantly. They were transported to the county hospital. The four survivors all suffered injuries -- some serious.
One young woman had been thrown 50 feet from the wreckage. She was barely breathing and was quickly airlifted to the nearest trauma center, Parkview Hospital in Fort Wayne.
That's where Laura Van Ryn’s family was told to go. They arrived at about 1:15 in the morning.
Susie Van Ryn: In the lobby right there there are a dozen or 15--
Lisa Van Ryn: Twenty maybe.
Susie Van Ryn: -- of Laura’s friends. A couple roommates. And so we were, you know, greeted by them.
Matt Lauer: Greeted with tears, greeted with hugs?
Susie Van Ryn: Oh, yeah.
Matt Lauer: Prayers?
Susie Van Ryn: All of the above.
They didn't know whether Laura would survive the next few hours, or if she'd ever be the same person again. But for now, at least, she was alive.
Whitney's mom was hoping and praying that her daughter had also survived.
Matt Lauer: And then the phone rang.
Colleen Cerak: Right.
Two hours after the crash: April 26, 2006
Whitney Cerak's mother, Colleen, had just heard that her daughter was one of nine people involved in a deadly crash on an Indiana freeway. She was desperate for news, hoping Whitney had survived. Then, around 10:45 p.m., the call came. It was the coroner. And the chaplain.
Matt Lauer: Can you as closely as possible remember exactly what they said to you on that phone call?
Colleen Cerak: I think they just told me that they were sorry. That Whitney was one of the victims in the accident. And that she had died. I just was just so sad that I just said, "Thank you." I didn't really talk very long on the phone. That's -- I just wanted to get off and talk to Newell. So I just went back into the kitchen where I could be alone and talk to Newell. So I called him right away. And that was just really hard, you know, to tell him.
Colleen Cerak: Just to -- it was just hard. That Whitney had died.
Matt Lauer: Newell, when you heard your wife's voice on the phone?
Newell Cerak: Well, of course I was hoping for the best. And when she goes, "Newell, I’m sorry." I mean I don't remember much after that. I just remember saying, "Sorry, she's gone." And -- and I just-- I just started crying like a baby. I just felt at a loss because I was so far from my wife and from Carly. And -- but it just -- it was devastating.
Whitney's father Newell was a thousand miles away on a church trip in Mississippi. Now someone had to tell their other daughter, Carly, what had happened. The family pastor offered to make the call.
Colleen Cerak: He knew that I was so heartbroken at that point it was hard for me to even talk to Carly.
Carly Cerak: As soon as I heard him I knew it must mean that Whitney wasn't alive. I remember just dropping the phone and just falling right there on the spot. And crying.
Carly had rushed to Marion General Hospital in Indiana in hopes of finding out her sister was alive. Now she was told Whitney had been dead for hours, her body just a few feet away. Carly couldn't bear to look.
Carly Cerak: 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.
Newell was making arrangements to fly back from Mississippi. Colleen's pastor offered to drive her to Indiana, five hours away.
Matt Lauer: When you got to the hospital, you know, if this were a movie, the mother or the father would have walked in and said, "I know she's gone but take me to see my little girl."
Colleen Cerak: You know, I have a beautiful picture of Whitney in my head. I didn't want to have-- I didn't--
Matt Lauer: Did—
Colleen Cerak: 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.
Six hours after the crash: April 27, 2006
Fifty miles away, at Parkview Hospital, Laura’s parents and sister were steeling themselves, preparing to see her for the first time since she'd been terribly injured in the crash.
Don Van Ryn: They told us at that point, “Expect to see her in an altered state. She's got tubes coming out everywhere.” You know, she's bruised up.
Lisa Van Ryn: She's not going to--
Don Van Ryn: --altered --
Lisa Van Ryn: -- look like herself.
Don Van Ryn: She's not going to look like herself.
Lisa Van Ryn: Right.
Matt Lauer: So when you walked in the room, what did she look like?
Susie Van Ryn: Man.
Don Van Ryn: What did we see?
Lisa Van Ryn: 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.
Lisa Van Ryn: But otherwise her face was--
Don Van Ryn: Well, she had a tube--
Lisa Van Ryn: --pretty intact. So--
Don Van Ryn: --stuck in the side of her mouth.
Lisa Van Ryn: Right.
Don Van Ryn: The respirator. So her mouth was pulled funny. And the tube in her head.
Matt Lauer: How hard was it to see, Susie? To see your daughter in that state?
Susie Van Ryn: Sorry.
Don Van Ryn: That's all right. It was very hard.
Susie Van Ryn: Very hard.
Matt Lauer: Did you say anything to her? I know she couldn't talk to you.
Susie Van Ryn: I don't remember specifically saying anything to her. But your heart just breaks. Or aches. To see your daughter or your child laying there helpless. And you are helpless to fix her.
Matt Lauer: You were handed a bag of her belongings? Correct?
Susie Van Ryn: Yes.
Matt Lauer: Did you recognize everything in the bag?
Susie Van Ryn: The purse and her wallet.
Lisa Van Ryn: 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."
Laura's mom Susie started a prayer journal, writings she intended to give her daughter to read when -- or if -- she recovered.
(Susie’s prayer journal)
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.
While Laura’s family prepared for a long struggle to save their daughter, Whitney's family couldn't yet bring themselves to say goodbye. On April 27, the day after the crash, Taylor University held a prayer service for the victims. Whitney's mom Colleen attended.
Colleen Cerak: 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.
Matt Lauer: Did it also really sink in at that moment?
Colleen Cerak: Everything was so much -- just all seems surreal to us. You know, just how could this be happening?
Whitney's father, Newell, was having the same feelings as he flew back from Mississippi.
Newell Cerak: 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.
His wife and remaining daughter met him at the airport.
Newell Cerak: It was very, very emotional. I came down the escalator and there they were. No words were spoken. We just ran into each other's arms and just started crying.
Matt Lauer: Did you pray together?
Newell Cerak: Oh, yeah. Yeah, we did.
Colleen Cerak: I don't even remember praying. I just remember just holding onto Newell and holding onto Carly and just really feeling that security of just being together. I just needed to be together with them.
They went back to Whitney’s dorm, picked up her belongings, and started the long drive back home. On the way they wrote Whitney’s obituary.
Colleen Cerak: Whitney Erin Cerak, age 18 of GayLord, died in a tragic car accident Wednesday, April 26, 2006 in Marion, Ind. She lived a wonderful and full, but short life. She was a freshman at Taylor University where she was growing in love and knowledge of her friend and savior, Jesus Christ. She is now living with Him in heaven.
While the Ceraks tried to sum up Whitney’s life, the Van Ryns kept a round-the-clock vigil over the critically injured Laura. The two families had never met, but their lives were already, inextricably, intertwined.
Two days after the crash: April 28, 2006
Lisa Van Ryn started a blog to update friends, family and the world about the condition of her sister, Laura.
(Lisa Van Ryn's blog)
Her left leg (femur) and left elbow are broken and have been placed in casts. Her right clavicle bone is broken also and it is in a sling right now. She has some fractured ribs, and an array of cuts and bruises. It is apparent that she feels pain, which is actually a good sign.
The worst of Laura’s injuries was invisible. The force of the crash had slammed her brain around inside her skull, causing serious damage. She was in a coma. There was no telling when, or if, she would ever wake up.
Matt Lauer: You have to think, "We are so fortunate our daughter has survived." But you have to also be thinking at the same time, "What are her chances for long-term survival? What can the doctors do?" Was that a constant fear for all of you?
Don Van Ryn: It wasn't for me right at the time. It was more I’m in the moment here. This is the state she's in. What do we do to help her?
Susie Van Ryn: I’m more emotional than that.
Matt Lauer: Yeah? It was hard for you--
Susie Van Ryn: Kind of this--
Matt Lauer: --to think everything was going to be OK?
Susie Van Ryn: It was hard. Yeah. I’m not a hospital person. The machines, every beep, every non-beep, everything that stopped scared me. Everything that started, you know, was unsettling. I didn't know what everything was for. And yeah, I was fearful.
(Susie Van Ryn prayer book)
I was shaky today, Laurie, wanting so badly for you to wake up ... It's not like you to be so still! Wake up, sweetie --I want to talk to you and see your beautiful face --look into your eyes. I love you, mom.
The family took turns keeping a 24-hour vigil by Laura’s bedside.
Whitney's family was keeping a different kind of vigil.
Matt Lauer: On Saturday, April 29, the day before the funeral, you held a visitation. And, boy, a lot of people came.
Newell Cerak: We got there and the line started. And it just didn't end. It just kept going and going. And it was—I mean people coming up to us saying they were sorry and all that. But what we wanted to hear and what a lot of them did was share moments of how Whitney had touched them. And that just made us feel really, really, really good.
Matt Lauer: By the way, it was also Whitney’s birthday?
Colleen Cerak: Yes, it was.
Newell Cerak: Yes. Exactly.
Matt Lauer: That had to make it doubly hard?
Colleen Cerak: Well, you know, it was. Whitney was huge on birthdays. And so we asked if it would be OK. And they put a TV out there. And we had the tape of Whitney's birthday parties.
Colleen Cerak: And that was just a neat, neat thing. Instead of just sitting there and just, you know, being sad, they could sit there and just celebrate Whitney’s life.
Newell Cerak: 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.
Matt Lauer: During the visitation, I guess an obvious question, the casket was--
Newell Cerak: Closed.
Matt Lauer: Closed?
Newell Cerak: Yes.
Four days after the crash, April 30, 2006
Matt Lauer: The day after Whitney’s birthday. And you held the funeral.
Newell Cerak: It just didn't seem like it was happening, but it was like an out of body experience almost. It was like we were participating but not really participating. The church holds about 1,100. There were over 1,400 people that showed up. And we were in awe. We were in absolute awe.
(From funeral service)
"You have always been an angel to me, now you just have the wings to prove it." "She may not have been the best player, but she made the others feel they were." "She's already getting her reputation as the funniest girl in heaven."
Colleen Cerak: It was humbling is what it was. Just so many people cared enough for our family we felt so surrounded and loved by so many people.
The Ceraks buried their daughter on Monday, May 1.
Matt Lauer: You had so much on your mind. I can only imagine. And there was a mix-up. You forgot to pick your mom up.
Newell Cerak: In the confusion of all of the things I go, "Where's mom?" (laughs) and all of a sudden I hear Colleen go, "uh-oh." And that's when she goes, "I was supposed to tell you that you had to pick her up."
Matt Lauer: And when you went to apologize to her about not getting her and her missing that burial, she said something to you.
Newell Cerak: It's something that we believe as Christians. I just said, "Mom, I am so sorry." She goes, "Newell, that's OK." I go, "Are you sure?" She goes, "Yeah, because it's not really Whitney anyway."
She meant that Whitney’s soul -- the real Whitney -- was already in heaven. But soon her words would seem prophetic in a very different way.
Six days after the crash, May 2, 2006
(Lisa Van Ryn blog)
Laura's surgeries today went great! They set her broken leg and elbow, and added a couple of plates for stabilization. She'll get to be more entertaining going through metal detectors now! The tracheotomy went very well also… there is no longer anything in her mouth; all tubes, etc. have been removed. Laura’s color has improved a great deal. She also is still moving quite a bit.
Six days after the high-speed crash that nearly killed her, Laura Van Ryn was still in in intensive care, in a coma. She was heavily bandaged. Her face was swollen. As the days went by, her family never left her alone.
Matt Lauer: All these hours that you spent by her side, what were you saying? What did you talk about? What did you do?
Lisa Van Ryn: We would tell her that we were there. We would tell her who had come to visit. Kind of what we'd been doing that day. And just telling her positive things. "You're doing' great today. Your hair looks cute.”
Don Van Ryn: It's a beautiful sunny day here in Fort Wayne. It's springtime and the flowers are out. And then we sang to her.
Matt Lauer: Were there favorite songs that you sang to her?
Don Van Ryn: Susie called her her “sunshine girl.” And I think we did that “you are my sunshine, my only sunshine.”
Susie Van Ryn: Quite often I would sing, "This is the day that the Lord has made." It's just a little chorus and very quietly because I’m kind of quiet.
In the intensive care unit, Laura and her family were surrounded by loved ones.
Don Van Ryn: We had huge amounts of visitors. And so we took two or three at a time, because you had to keep it real low key. Numerous friends went back to see Laura. And they went and they saw Laura.
Matt Lauer: Did anyone come to you and say they felt unusual? That they saw anything unusual? That they had any doubts, fears, anything?
Susie Van Ryn: No.
Matt Lauer: Not one person?
Don Van Ryn: No.
Susie Van Ryn: No.
Don Van Ryn: No.
(Lisa Van Ryn blog)
Laura started moving a lot more today. At times, she squeezes hands, wiggles toes, squints her eyes (though still closed), and moves her legs and arms. She is still in a positive signs pull out comatose state, but her movements are very positive signs.
They watched for the tiniest signs of consciousness, but when one came it was a bit puzzling at first.
Matt Lauer: Lisa, you're at Laura’s bedside and she yawned, which I guess she hadn't done prior to that. And she kind of opened her mouth. And you noticed something about her teeth. Tell me what you saw?
Lisa Van Ryn: Well, I noticed that these two [teeth] on either side in the front looked different to me. They sat a little bit differently than I thought Laura’s teeth had been. And I said, "Look at her teeth." and I think I pulled up her lip a little bit. And we said, "Yeah, those look a little different." And we knew that Laura had, when she was thrown from the vehicle, they had found her up against the fence. And our speculation was that they had gotten hit and shifted a little bit.
Taylor University held a memorial service for the four students and one staff member killed in the crash on Sunday, May 7.
Whitney's family drove down from Michigan to attend.
Matt Lauer: On the highway, you pass the scene of the accident. Only this time there are five crosses on the side of the road. What did you do?
Colleen Cerak: I just remember getting out and, you know, looking at -- you could see the big crevices in the—
Newell Cerak: Median.
Colleen Cerak: --median that had been torn up by the truck coming across. And it was just one of those sobering times where you just kind of sit there and the reality of it was there.
Before the service, they had dinner at the home of the university's president. There they met the university official who had identified Whitney’s body.
Colleen Cerak: He's a good friend of ours. And we thanked him for what he had done. And my heart was just praying for him. For him not to have it hurt too much.
Newell Cerak: We felt bad that he was the one that had those visions in his head.
Matt Lauer: And no questions about--
Newell Cerak: No. No questions--
Matt Lauer: What did you--
Newell Cerak: --whatsoever.
Matt Lauer: --see? How was she? Nothing.
Newell Cerak: No. I never even had an inkling of even asking him anything like that. I just felt really bad that he had to do that.
Laura's family left her bedside for a few hours to attend the service.
Matt Lauer: What do you remember about that memorial service?
Don Van Ryn: Powerful. The place was packed.
One of the most powerful speeches came from Whitney’s father.
(From memorial service)
Newell Cerak: We know Jesus Christ has her in his presence right now. And that one day we'll see her again.
Matt Lauer: Did they put pictures of some of the victims up on a projection screen at the front of the room?
Don Van Ryn: Yes.
Matt Lauer: Do you remember seeing Whitney Cerek's photo go up?
Susie Van Ryn: Oh, yeah. It was -- you know, we saw all of them.
Matt Lauer: Did--
Susie Van Ryn: Sure--
Matt Lauer: -- did anything --
Susie Van Ryn: -- they are.
Matt Lauer: --register with you when you looked at her picture?
Susie Van Ryn: No.
Don Van Ryn: Not at all.
It was at the memorial service that the two families met for the first time.
Newell Cerak: I felt a tap on my shoulder. And I turned around and it was Don Van Ryn.
Don Van Ryn: I introduced myself as Laura’s father. And just let him know how we felt. How much compassion we had for his family and how we were praying for them. Yeah.
Newell Cerak: I just said, "Don, I just want you to know, I’m praying for your daughter. I'm very thankful for the progress that she was making," because we were constantly reading the blog as well.
Matt Lauer: Did you keep up with that?
Newell Cerak: Yeah, I did. I read it pretty much every day, I would get on. And at one point I said, “I just wonder, Colleen, how we would handle it if that was our daughter? I just don't know how strong a parent I am. Would I be able to handle taking care of a daughter that's been in a serious accident knowing that maybe she's going to be a vegetable for the rest of her life?" And I’ll just be honest with you. At that point we just said, "We're thankful that Whitney’s gone and that the Van Ryns are strong enough to deal with the situation that they're dealing with."
He couldn't know, at the time, how deeply ironic his words actually were.
(From the blog on Sunday, May 7)
Laura is still sporting the pigtails and her face is looking quite normal; there is virtually no swelling at all.
Laura Van Ryn had been in a coma for 11 days, and her sister Lisa’s blog had developed a big following. The word spread through emails, and churches, all over the world.
We continue to see encouraging signs from Laura today as she is now breathing entirely on her own … They had her sitting in a chair and she's been looking pretty peaceful so far today.
Although Laura was still unconscious, she was moving more and more. And as her family stood vigil at her bedside, there wasn't much privacy.
Matt Lauer: And at one point her hospital gown or what she was wearing rode up a little bit and you could see her navel. And it was pierced.
Lisa Van Ryn: Yes.
Matt Lauer: And what was your thought when you saw that?
Lisa Van Ryn: Oh, I didn't know about that. (laughter)
Matt Lauer: I wonder if mom and dad know about that?
Lisa Van Ryn: Yeah. Kind of that, but just -- you know, I don't know.
Susie Van Ryn: You just kind of--
Lisa Van Ryn: You just kind of, again, shrugged it off. Like “Well, she had just been on spring break. Just didn't know that. Now I do. “
Soon the family was rejoicing at a much more significant development. For the first time since the crash, Laura opened her eyes.
Matt Lauer: What was that like?
Don Van Ryn: It wasn't like the movies where her eyes popped open. One eye just barely opening. Just a little slit. That's the way it happened. Am I right?
Lisa Van Ryn: And very glossy and not focusing on anything.
Matt Lauer: That one little glossy slit was a whole lot better than what you'd seen before.
Don Van Ryn: That's right.
Lisa Van Ryn: Right.
Matt Lauer: It must have been a momentous occasion.
Don Van Ryn: That's right. That's true.
Susie Van Ryn: It was like a little glimmer of, "yes."
Don Van Ryn: Did you see it?
Susie Van Ryn: She's -- yeah.
Don Van Ryn: No.
Susie Van Ryn: It was like you almost didn't believe you saw that she had done that.
But it was true. After 20 days in a coma, Laura was slowly waking up.
(Lisa Van Ryn blog, Tuesday, May 16)
Proverbs 16:1 says "to man belong the plans of the heart, but from the Lord comes the reply of the tongue." Laura started talking to us last night!
Matt Lauer: And do you remember what she said?
Don Van Ryn: I think she said, "hi."
Lisa Van Ryn: Hi.
Susie Van Ryn: Yeah. Honey, it was, "hi."
Lisa Van Ryn: Very hoarse. Very weak. “Hi.”
Matt Lauer: Must have been the best word you'd ever heard.
Susie Van Ryn: Oh, yeah.
Don Van Ryn: Very exciting. Very exciting.
Matt Lauer: And what'd you say to her?
Don Van Ryn: “Hi, sweetie.”
Susie Van Ryn: Yeah. You know, we'd been talking to her all along and singing to her and reading to her, with nothing coming back. But, you know, just praying that she heard us. And when she said that it was like you had this urge to, "OK. Let's keep this going."
Even as Laura’s family celebrated her slow return, Whitney's family was trying to restart their lives. Parents Newell and Colleen returned to a home that would never be the same, leaving their other daughter Carly behind at Taylor University for the first time since the accident.
Newell Cerak: At that moment I remembered when I was in Mississippi and Carly had called me. And I just remember how helpless I felt. And those feelings all came up again. At that point leaving her again, because I just felt helpless to leave her there.
Matt Lauer: You two go back home and you got to get back to your lives. You had to. You went back to work.
Colleen Cerak: Yes.
Matt Lauer: Had to get used to the fact that Whitney was gone. Those first few weeks must have just been impossible?
Colleen Cerak: They were hard. But--
Newell Cerak: They're like a blur to me. We felt this huge hole in our hearts. Even though we have this hope, even though we know that one day we'll see each other again, it doesn't diminish the pain.
Three weeks, one day after the crash: May 18.
Matt Lauer: A big day. You moved Laura from the hospital to a rehabilitation center here in Grand Rapids. Were you nervous about the move?
Susie Van Ryn: I was.
Matt Lauer: Yeah? Why? What made you nervous?
Susie Van Ryn: Every new move, every new thing they did was anxious for me. You know, I --
Lisa Van Ryn: Not knowing if she was ready medically.
Matt Lauer: But on the other hand it had to be a feeling as if you'd made a big step getting her closer to home?
Susie Van Ryn: Yes.
Don Van Ryn: Absolutely.
Susie Van Ryn: Yes.
Matt Lauer: That she was on the road to getting back home for good?
Susie Van Ryn: Right.
Laura was transported to Spectrum Health Continuing Care Center in Grand Rapids, Mich., not far from her family's home.
(Lisa Van Ryn blog, May 22, 2006)
Let me take a minute here and try to answer a frequently asked question. "So is Laura out of the coma now?" The answer to that is yes. However -- is she alert, bright eyed, and aware of all that's going on? No. Her brain needs to be retrained (or reminded, perhaps) to handle information. Once again, it's going to be a long road for her. This waking up process is a slow one.
But now that Laura had at least partially regained consciousness, her longtime boyfriend noticed something else that was unusual.
Matt Lauer: Aryn, her boyfriend, at one point looked at her eyes and said, "the color appears different." Did he discuss that--
Don Van Ryn: I think so.
Matt Lauer: --with you?
Don Van Ryn: I believe so. They were a little more blue maybe.
Lisa Van Ryn: A little more blue. Yes.
Matt Lauer: And they had more of a greenish hue--
Don Van Ryn: Right.
Matt Lauer: --as you remembered them?
Don Van Ryn: Yeah.
Matt Lauer: How did you figure that out or how'd you explain that?
Lisa Van Ryn: I didn't really think about it, to be honest.
Don Van Ryn: That didn't mean anything to us.
But soon, it would mean the world to them -- and to Whitney’s family as well.
Four weeks, two days after the crash: Friday, May 26
(Lisa Van Ryn blog)
A few people have asked if Laura opens her eyes a lot and if she recognizes people. She does open her eyes quite a bit now, but it's tough to tell sometimes what she's focusing on. When we ask her if she sees something, she will usually nod her head to respond … As far as recognizing us... We think that sometimes she does, and sometimes she doesn't.
It was a month now since Laura Van Ryn had suffered a serious brain injury in a high-speed freeway collision that killed five other people. Her broken bones were healing. Her face was back to normal. With her family constantly at her side, Laura had slowy awakened from a coma, and now she was undergoing intensive therapy to rebuild her mental and physical powers. She had to re-learn how to walk and how to talk. And as her speech slowly improved, she started saying some things that were strange.
Matt Lauer: And I think it was about this time that she looked at you one time and she called you Carly.
Lisa Van Ryn: She also called me April. And she called me one other name. And maybe she called me Lisa too. She had several names. And we just thought that she was very confused and maybe she had had a nurse by the name of April or something was why she said that to me.
Laura also called her boyfriend, Aryn, "Hunter" -- and told him to lie down.
But it's not unusual for brain injury patients to call people by the wrong name or even to misidentify themselves. And besides, Laura was showing many signs of regaining her memory and her identity.
Matt Lauer: So here you're showing your daughter a picture of her roommates and she knows every one of their names.
Lisa Van Ryn: Yes.
Don Van Ryn: She did. I said, "Great, Laura. Good job." Yeah. Amazing. And there were other things she did that were very Laura-like. You know?
Matt Lauer: Like what?
Don Van Ryn: The leg was shaking. And she -- Laura would always shake her leg. And she was strong. Had strong legs. Laura had those soccer legs. We would say stuff, "Oh, you know, that's -- that's Laura right there."
Susie Van Ryn: That's so Laura. She's slowly coming back to you as Laura. Those little things. You know for us it was like, "Oh, that's so Laura."
Matt Lauer: Did you ask her her name? Did you ever ask her, "Can you say your name?"
Susie Van Ryn: No.
Don Van Ryn: I don't think at that point.
Lisa Van Ryn: I don't remember doing that.
Don Van Ryn: No.
Matt Lauer: Let me take you to Memorial Day. May 29, 2006. You actually spent the day with friends I think? It was, I believe, might have been the first day--
Lisa Van Ryn: Yes.
Matt Lauer: -- you spent away --
Lisa Van Ryn: That's right.
Matt Lauer: --from Laura. And Don, you attended her therapy session that day.
Don Van Ryn: Correct.
Matt Lauer: And the therapist asked her to write her name. Tell me about that moment.
Don Van Ryn: She wrote, scrawled – “Whitney.”
"Whitney." She wrote, "Whitney." At first, her dad didn't give it much thought.
Don Van Ryn: We had been schooled all along by the medical personnel and the brain injury people about brain injuries and about how the neurons are firing but they aren't necessarily connecting.
Susie Van Ryn: And the therapist showed us that she had written Whitney. And, you know, she said, “Does she know a Whitney?" And I said, "Well, there was another girl in the accident."
Don Van Ryn: And my immediate thought was maybe she was sitting in the van next to Whitney just prior to the accident. And that was what was stuck in her head. And again, I didn't make a huge deal of it immediately.
But then there was another disturbing moment.
Matt Lauer: She's being wheeled back from therapy. You were there?
Don Van Ryn: I was wheeling her down the hall. Yeah. And she mumbled something.
Matt Lauer: And what'd she mumble?
Don Van Ryn: I couldn't make it out. So I leaned my head down. And after maybe the third time I understood her to be saying, "false parents."
Matt Lauer: False parents?
Don Van Ryn: With barely opening her lips. You know? And “false parents.” And I thought, "Yeah, right. You know we were with you 24-7. And taking care of you like this."
Matt Lauer: Did you tell Susie about that?
Don Van Ryn: I think I did. And maybe that helped--
Susie Van Ryn: I think so that may have also--
Don Van Ryn: --what led to your thought process.
Susie Van Ryn: Yeah. I was starting to be a little uneasy and and questioning. That was a little bit more than I could understand.
Susie's unease turned into haunting doubt that evening, when some friends joined the Van Ryns for dinner at the rehab center.
Matt Lauer: Then they saw Laura. And they had a rather strange reaction. What do you remember about that?
Don Van Ryn: Well, Aryn was wheeling Laura around in her chair and passing by the entrance to the cafeteria. And I said, "Aryn, bring Laura over here. I want to have her say hi to our friends." And so that's how they got a good close-up look at her. And they just had a strange look that passed between them on their faces. And they were somewhat quiet the rest of the evening.
That night, after a day with friends, Lisa returned to her sister's bedside. Her dad had told her about the events of the day, and now Lisa looked with fresh eyes.
Lisa Van Ryn: At that moment it was night. I was sitting with her while she was falling asleep. And just thinking, "Wow. This might not be Laura." and just looking at her and looking at her. And still not feeling 100 percent positive. So I felt uneasy on my drive home.
Lisa turned it all over in her mind: the pushed-up teeth, the too-blue eyes, the piercing that hadn't been there before, and now she had written her name as "Whitney." How could it be?
Lisa Van Ryn: I remembered that someone in Fort Wayne had given us a CD that was played at Whitney’s funeral. And I knew it had a picture of her on there … And so I went deliberately to look for that picture immediately when I got home. And I looked at it. And I noticed her teeth. And I thought back to the ICU -- when my brother and I had noticed the teeth. And I thought -- it probably took the wind out of me a little. And I thought, "That is the girl that's in the bed."
The night of May 29, 2006, Memorial Day, Laura Van Ryn’s mother Susie wrote an anguished entry in her prayer journal.
(From prayer journal)
Susie Van Ryn: Please don't take Laurie from me, Lord. My heart is heavy today. Please don't let it be. My heart cries out in desperation to you. This would be more than I can bear. I know you are not a cruel God -- what purposes would there be? Could my heart deceive me? Could I not know my own daughter? Oh God, help me. You are all I have. Please give me Laurie back.
Matt Lauer: What must that have been like when you started to doubt?
Susie Van Ryn: Agonizing. First of all, you've been on this emotional roller coaster for five weeks. And we still weren't at the end of it. And feeling like we're getting little glimpses of Laura and it's still a long road ahead. And now all of a sudden this thought that this might not be Laura. You can't deal with that at the moment because this -- your daughter, who's laying there, still needs you. And if it's not your daughter then you need her parents. She needs her mom and dad right away.
The Van Ryns had been caring for their critically injured daughter round the clock for five weeks, but now they were asking themselves a terrible question: what if the woman in the bed was not their daughter at all? Susie and Lisa already had strong doubts. Don was still clinging to the belief that the woman in the bed was Laura.
The realization: May 30, 2006
Matt Lauer: You all went to the hospital and your friend from the night before came to visit you.
Don Van Ryn: He and another friend. And they expressed this concern that this young lady might not be Laura. And my immediate reaction was, "Oh, come on, guys. I know my own daughter. It's Laura."
Matt Lauer: Was there any anger on your part when they brought this subject up?
Don Van Ryn: No. It wasn't anger. It was, you know, an uneasy feeling. It was maybe a small bit of fear.
Don realized he had to resolve everyone's doubts, one way or another. As soon as possible, Lisa stayed at the rehab center. Don and Susie went home and made some difficult, searching phone calls.
Matt Lauer: You tried to go back five weeks and find out how the bodies were identified after the accident. Tell me about the calls. What'd you find out?
Don Van Ryn: I think I found out that there was some doubt possibly. That the accident scene was disastrous. You know? Things scattered all over. And, you know, I found out that a visual i.d. was made at the scene.
Matt Lauer: And that made you believe even more that there could be room for doubt?
Don Van Ryn: I believed that, yes. There was a possibility. Sure.
Back at the rehab center, Lisa decided she couldn't wait any longer for the truth.
Matt Lauer: You've seen Whitney’s photograph. You've seen the smile and the teeth and the eyes. And Lisa, you were wheeling her back from a therapy session and you decided this couldn't go any longer without certainty.
Lisa Van Ryn: Well, when we were in that therapy session, she was throwing a ball to me and they kept telling her, "throw it to your sister." And everything in me wanted to say, "it's not my sister." It was like I knew right then as they were saying it that it wasn't right, but didn't want to confuse her. And so I didn't say anything in the session. But when we got out into the hallway, it was a quiet moment just with her on our way back to her room. And I just remember it very clearly. Stopping and sort of kneeling down, kind of coming face-to-face with her. And not offering any information to her. But just saying, "You did awesome today. You're doing really well. I just want to ask you a question. Can I ask you a question?" And she nodded her head. And I said, "Can you tell me your name?" And she said, "Whitney." And I said, "That's so good. You're doing so good." And I asked her her parents' names and she was able to tell me, "Newell and Colleen." And that was the clincher for me. I knew Laura would not know that. And I told Whitney, I said, "You're doing so well. Do you want to go back to your room?" And she just nodded. I said, "Here we go."
Matt Lauer: When I read that, Lisa, it knocked the wind out of me. But you know what else I thought? What a fabulous response you had. What a moment of generosity that was to Whitney. You didn't get up and run screaming down the hall and create more trauma for her.
Lisa Van Ryn: Well, I loved her. We loved her.
Lisa Van Ryn: We—
Don Van Ryn: And still do.
Lisa Van Ryn: Yeah. I mean why would I do that to her? She had become a dear friend and basically a sister.
Susie Van Ryn: She was a sister.
Lisa Van Ryn: Yeah.
But now they all knew in their hearts that this young woman they'd cared for and loved was not theirs. And that certainty led to another.
Don Van Ryn: Immediate realization that, you know, our daughter had died in the accident. But, it was still almost two separate issues. And we wanted to do--
Lisa Van Ryn: Do the right thing.
Don Van Ryn: -- what was right for Whitney at that point.
Lisa Van Ryn: The best thing for her.
Don Van Ryn: And it was almost like the death of my daughter. I knew it was a reality at that time. But I would -- I would deal with that a little bit later. That sounds odd, doesn't it?
Matt Lauer: It sounds hard.
Don Van Ryn: Yeah.
Susie Van Ryn: Well, it was hard. But Matt, we knew where our daughter was. And we knew that Newell and Colleen needed to know where their daughter was.
The phone call: Wednesday, May 31, 2006
Colleen Cerak: It was one of those things where it's 2:00 in the morning and, you know, you just grab the phone. And nothing ever really is good when somebody's calling you at 2:00 in the morning.
It was five weeks since Colleen Cerak had taken one fateful call, when she was told her daughter Whitney had been killed in a high-speed crash.
Now the same people who called then were calling back.
Colleen Cerak: And introduced themselves as the Grant County Coroner and Grant County Chaplain. They were both on the phone. And the first thing they said, “Was I alone?”
Her husband, Newell, was in New Jersey, chaperoning a trip with a church youth group. He'd been traveling the night Whitney died. This was his first trip since then.
Colleen Cerak: I said, "Well, my daughter's home." And he was like, "Get her. Could you get her on the phone?" So I got out of bed. And I’m still not really thinking that clearly. And give Carly the phone and wake her up. And I went downstairs to get on the other extension. And that's when they said, "We have reason to believe that your daughter, Whitney, is alive."
A statement so unexpected, so overwhelming... She couldn't even comprehend it at first.
Colleen Cerak: And, you know, then you just go -- really your whole body goes, "No, I know that's not true. You know we buried our daughter." And they said, "We know for sure that the girl in the hospital in Grand Rapids is not Laura Van Ryn. And we think that it's Whitney. Could you get some dental records and come down here?"
Matt Lauer: And Colleen, at this point how high up in your body did you allow that swell of hope to rise?
Colleen Cerak: It wasn't. There wasn't any hope at that point. It was more of like a duty. You know? Just close this door. I know it's not Whitney. Just something that we needed to do. But I didn't even know if we needed to do it at that point. You know I just said, "Can I call you back?"
Carly Cerak: I ran downstairs and I told my mom, "Whoever this is, I don't know why they're doing this, but this isn't real." Like there's no -- I knew for sure there was no way that Whitney was alive, especially because Laura’s friends are some of my really close friends. And they know Whitney through me. And even one of my closest friends went and visited and she's really close with Whitney. They never said anything about it. So I knew for sure there was no way it was Whitney.
Nevertheless, at 2 a.m., Colleen called the family dentist, who agreed to pull Whitney’s records. Then she called her husband Newell.
Newell Cerak: And I know because of the edge in her voice that there's something up. And I go, my thought immediately, I said, "Not Carly." I just said, "Not Carly," thinking that maybe Carly had been in some accident. And when she said to me, you know, that there's a possibility that Whitney could be alive, it was like, "No." And I go, "No." I go, "She's gone. We buried her." And then I hear Carly and she got on the phone and she goes, "Dad, don't you believe it for a second." And I go, "Carly, I don't. I don't. I really believe we were -- that's Whitney that we buried."
He spent a sleepless night by the phone while Whitney’s mother and sister picked up her dental records and made the three-hour trip to the rehab center.
Matt Lauer: You drive. Still not believing it.
Colleen Cerak: No.
Matt Lauer: Talking through all the reasons why it couldn't be Whitney.
Colleen Cerak: It kind of worked its way down. You know, like when we got in the car it was just like -- it was a duty. We just needed to do this. We were just like, "this is stupid but let's just get it done."
Carly Cerak: I still was certain that it wasn't Whitney. And I didn't want to go on the trip. I only went because my mom really wanted me to go.
Colleen Cerak: And then about halfway we started thinking, "you know, but what if?" And then we were just kind of making up kind of funny things like, "Well, if it is it's going to be this movie." And we started picking out like the cast of characters. You know, who would--
Matt Lauer: Who would play who?
Colleen Cerak: Who would play who. And that kept us going for a little bit. And then the closer we got then the more serious we became. And just like, "but if they couldn't recognize their daughter for five weeks, what are we going to see?" And then that kind of anxiousness was there. You know? What was she going to look like? If they couldn't recognize her would we recognize her? You know, if it was Whitney was she ever going to be our Whitney again? So it was pretty scary.
Carly Cerak: By the time we'd got to the hospital I was so upset that we even had to go look at whoever this girl is. In my mind the closest I could think was someone else got into an accident the same time that this accident happened. And in the hospital those two girls got switched. And it was some random girl. I just figured whoever it was must still be pretty disfigured. So I was nervous to see whatever this person looked like.
They reached the rehab center at daybreak. The staff was waiting at the door.
Colleen Cerak: And, you know, welcomed us. But it was very reserved. And you know, tried to explain little things or ask us if we had any questions, but really all we wanted to do was see if this was really Whitney. So they walked us back to her room. And I was first following behind them. And the lights had to be low and stuff, but I just remember that they-- you know-- they just cracked open the door just a little bit.
Carly Cerak: And I remember just feeling so confused and just shaking so much. And seeing Van Ryn on the plate in front of the door. And then opening the door and seeing this girl facing the window laying down in this bed.
Could the young woman in the bed possibly be Whitney?
The reunion: May 31, 2006
Whitney Cerak’s mother and sister had driven five hours, not really daring to believe what they'd been told: that there was a chance that Whitney, who they'd lost, mourned, buried five weeks ago -- that Whitney was not dead, but alive.
Now, in the neuro wing of the rehab center, they slowly pushed open the door and looked at the young woman inside.
Colleen Cerak: And I remember just right away I could just tell it was Whitney. And I just said, "It's Whitney." And Carly just like pushed past me at that point just to run in there. And just almost like fumbled on top of her. Just loving her. Which woke Whitney up and she was just kind of shaking her head like, "Yes, it's Whitney."
Carly Cerak: We were all just crying and screaming. And just totally disregarding all the rules they had set up for the rooms. And they couldn't let us stay in the room very long. But it was amazing just to see her open her eyes.
Matt Lauer: Did she say anything?
Colleen Cerak: Well, we kept on saying her name. You know? It was like, "Whitney." And she was like shaking her head, "yes." Like, "Yes, it's Whitney." You know? It was pretty special.
Five weeks before, Whitney’s father Newell had been on a trip. Colleen had to call then and tell him Whitney was dead. He was on a trip again this time, but this call was different.
Newell Cerak: And Colleen goes, "it's Whitney." And I just immediately fell to the floor. And I go, "No." I go, "Hang up the phone." So she hung up and I called her because I just didn't believe it. I didn't believe this was possible.
Colleen Cerak: Like it was a dream. He had to make me call back.
Newell Cerak: And so I called back. And she goes, "I’m standing here and it's Whitney." And the first thought in my head was, "is there something wrong with her?" You know, because--
Colleen Cerak: What does she look like?
Newell Cerak: What does she look like. And she goes, "beautiful as ever."
There's a note in the daily medical chart: "Laura Van Ryn... Whitney Cerak... Mistaken identity." A few simple words that can't begin to convey the tide of emotions coursing through two families.
Whitney's family went from grief to disbelief to joy that their daughter was alive.
Laura's family went from hope to doubt to the final confirmation, through dental records, that Laura was gone.
Don Van Ryn: The hardest thing I ever had to do, Matt, was tell my sons that they had lost their sister. There's not the right words to say in that situation. And I mean I think I just fell to my knees and wept. And expressed to the rest of my family how much I was going to need them. I'm just going to need you all to get through this.
Matt Lauer: This may sound horrible. And please understand how I say this. Would it have almost been easier to lose Laura the night of the accident than after five weeks of what happened?
Susie Van Ryn: I don't know. We talk about that a little bit. But losing your child, your daughter, your son -- whenever it happens, it's not supposed to happen.
In the midst of their grief, there was also dread. What did Whitney’s family think of them? The families met at the rehab center shortly after the Ceraks were reunited with Whitney.
Don Van Ryn: I think Susie had some of those feelings of, you know, "They're going to hate us. And we've kept them from their daughter all this time." And -- but it was a look on Colleen's face, wasn't it?
Susie Van Ryn: Yes.
Matt Lauer: A comforting --
Don Van Ryn: Compassionate.
Susie Van Ryn: Compassion. Which she knew -- she would know exactly how I was feeling at that moment. Because she had been there. And I would know how she felt getting her daughter. Seeing -- knowing that her daughter had survived.
Colleen Cerak: They gave us a hug. And I remember them saying they were so happy for us. And, you know, I just had to say -- you know how sorry I was to them for their loss.
Matt Lauer: Your family's had a miracle. But it means that their family has just had a tragedy.
Colleen Cerak: Yes. That was really hard. We had so much to be grateful to them for, but we knew what they were feeling.
Matt Lauer: You said something, Don, I think when you addressed them. "You must think we're the world's biggest dopes--"
Don Van Ryn: (laughs) Yeah.
Matt Lauer: --"not knowing our own daughter."
Don Van Ryn: I said “idiots.” I said that to Colleen and her retort was, “We love you guys. And don't even think that for a second." I mean it was very reassuring.
Later that day, Whitney’s father, Newell, arrived after driving 14 straight hours to get to his daughter.
Newell Cerak: When I finally got there she sat up and put her arms out like that. And I couldn't believe it. I just remember running over to her. And I just remember crying, calling her name over and over and over again. And that was just the moment. I mean it was just un--
Colleen Cerak: Being complete again.
Newell Cerak: Utter unbelief.
That same day, Laura’s sister once again updated her blog and delivered a message that stunned her readers around the world.
(Lisa Van Ryn’s blog)
We have some hard news to share with you today. 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 … it is a sorrow and a joy for us to learn of this turn of events. For us, we will mourn Laura’s going home and will greatly miss her compassionate heart and sweetness while knowing that she is safe and with her king forever. We rejoice with the Ceraks, that they will have more time on this earth with their daughter, sister, and loved one … thanks again for the support that you've been. Please continue your prayers. Our God is good and continues to be our help, our guide, our comfort. We love you sweets.
Susie Van Ryn made one last entry in the prayer journal she had kept for five weeks, a journal she had intended to give to Laura:
(Susie Van Ryn prayer journal)
I do not know what to say! God, you are my refuge -- please protect me.
You are my strength -- I am entirely weak. You will give me peace and comfort -- please see me through the days ahead.
The two families had switched roles completely, as if they'd passed through a mirror.
Now it was Whitney’s family coping with a brain-injured patient, and a long road to recovery -- even as Laura’s family planned a funeral. But there was a big difference now: intense media coverage.
The story of the mix-up made national and world headlines. For Laura’s family, the attention was excruciating.
Susie Van Ryn: The worst part was seeing her picture all the time. That's my little girl. And I just want to do this quietly. I don't want everybody watching. So that was hard. We didn't answer the phone, so that wasn't very hard. We just quit answering the phone.
But they could not stop the questions. How did the mix-up happen? How did it go on so long?
The memorial service: June 4, 2006
On June 4, a memorial service was held for Laura Van Ryn.
Don Van Ryn: It was a powerful service and it was a good time for sharing from Laura’s friends and others. We talked about Laura and what kind of a person she was. Compassionate. Always thinking of the interests of others over herself.
Lisa Van Ryn: Even people that knew her before felt like they got to know her better.
But a question hovered over them all.
Aryn: Many of you today are probably wondering how a man could date a girl and love a girl for three years, and not know that it was her.
How could the people who knew Laura best, her own family and her closest friends, mistake another woman for her? Laura's longtime boyfriend, Aryn:
Aryn: I saw her hands, her feet, her complexion, and I couldn't believe that it wasn't her. Even to this day, it's amazing to me that out of how much time we have spent together, that I just didn't know. And there's been many times in these last couple days where I’ve been mad at God. And how he could allow this to happen to me.
Matt Lauer: Let's just try and handle the one question that so many viewers are going to ask once and for all. They're going to say, "They were right up against the bed 24 hours a day. There were these little moments of eye color and teeth and the belly button." And they're going to say, "how could this have gone on so long?" How do you explain it to people?
Don Van Ryn: Well, first I say you're right. It's an amazing thing, isn't it? How could it have gone on so long? But as we've tried to describe, you have to try and put yourself in our shoes at the time.
Start with the crash itself: total chaos. Somehow, the two women's purses -- and photo identifications -- were switched at the scene. Then the survivor was rushed to the hospital.
The coroner later acknowledged he'd done no scientific tests to confirm the identities of the dead; state law at the time did not require any. And remember: no member of Whitney’s family ever asked to see her body.
Matt Lauer: Did anybody ask anyone at the hospital how the body was identified?
Newell Cerak: No.
Colleen Cerak: No.
Newell Cerak: No, we didn't. We had just assumed that that the identifications had been made.
Colleen Cerak: I mean why would you at that point.
Newell Cerak: Why we didn't question anything at that point.
But what about Laura’s family? It's true that Whitney and Laura shared a superficial resemblance. Both were young, blonde, attractive. But there were key differences, too. The teeth, the eyes, the piercing. And Whitney is about four inches taller than Laura. How could they not see those differences?
Don Van Ryn: It just goes back to what we were told on the way down. That our daughter had been, you know, in a bad accident. Expect to see her altered. And we walked in, we saw that. And with the tubes hanging out. And we -- she looked like Laura. And there were a lot of similarities, definitely. As I look at the two now, no, I don't think she looks like Laura. But again, you have to realize too that at least 100 other people, other friends were in that room and saw her.
Lisa Van Ryn: Also, you have to consider our emotional state as -- you know, you're just hydroplaning through this.
Here's a picture that's never been seen before: a photo of Whitney taken about 10 days after the crash, while she was still in a coma, while she was still thought to be Laura.
Ask yourself, without the benefit of hindsight, could you identify the patient? With her brain injury, she went for days without opening her eyes. She had no facial expressions. She wasn't speaking.
Matt Lauer: And so there were no trademark smiles.
Lisa Van Ryn: Right.
Don Van Ryn: Right.
Matt Lauer: There wasn't that trademark expression in the cheeks and in the eyes. She was a little bit of a blank slate at that--
Don Van Ryn: Absolutely.
Matt Lauer: Is that perhaps it? That when people face a trauma like this and a world turned upside down that in some ways you see what you're told to see and believe what you hope to believe?
Don Van Ryn: It's quite possible. And all our energy was focused on making her well. Healing her. And it became her identity. We talk about it's like you say, it --
Lisa Van Ryn: Her altered state became her identity.
Don Van Ryn: Yeah. And you say, "well, it's just--" None of these things we were looking for. I mean we weren't looking to establish the fact that this wasn't our daughter.
Lisa Van Ryn: Viewers are all saying, "Why didn't you notice the teeth or the shoes or the whatever?" It's like those are pieces to a puzzle that we didn't even know existed.
Susie Van Ryn: We didn't know there was a puzzle.
Lisa Van Ryn: We didn't know we were supposed to be putting together a puzzle.
It was a puzzle they didn't create and didn't know to look for. A puzzle that took five weeks to solve.
Matt Lauer: Do you even understand how this mistake could have happened? And lasted for five weeks?
Mr. Cerak: No, I don't think I totally understand how it could happen. I mean, we look back and we can see that could have been picked up on, or we could have picked up on that, but when you're in that moment, that doesn't even occur to you. We all chose the different paths that we chose. Not to look at the body and, you know, they chose to believe what was told them. And we respect that. And we're just so thankful for what they did for Whitney.
Matt Lauer: They also feel a little guilty about by not recognizing that it was Whitney and not their daughter, that they brought so much extra suffering on you unnecessarily.
Mr. Cerak: You know, those five weeks were hard. They were very, very hard. But they should feel no guilt for that whatsoever. I know that they loved her every bit as much as they would have their own daughter. And that, in itself, was just huge.
But how did all the confusion of those five weeks affect a young woman with a brain injury -- who was struggling to regain her memory and identity?
Whitney Cerack, back from the grave. She was presumed dead in the high speed collision that killed five of her fellow passengers. Her parents buried a woman they thought was her. Here she was, speaking for the first time.
Matt Lauer: Now that you know what your parents went through, and your sister went through, over those five weeks, how does it make you feel?
Whitney Cerak: It makes me really sad whenever I think about that. Really sad. It's really hard for me to even imagine what they went through. But I know it must have been hard.
Matt Lauer: They had to come down to your college and clean out your dorm room. Take your belongings away. And then they had to sit in the front row of that church on the day of your funeral.
Whitney Cerak: I don't like to imagine that.
Matt Lauer: You don't like to think about it, do you?
Whitney Cerak: No. Not all the pain they went through.
She spent weeks in a coma, weeks in which she had been mistaken for another woman -- Laura Van Ryn -- and cared for by Laura’s family, who were total strangers to her. Mercifully, perhaps, Whitney says there's a big gap in her memory, starting with April 26, 2006 -- the night of the crash.
Matt Lauer: What do you remember about that day?
Whitney Cerak: About April 26? I remember working the banquet and it was really fun. And then we stopped for a pizza afterwards.
Matt Lauer: Where were you sitting in the van?
Whitney Cerak: I couldn't tell you.
Matt Lauer: No idea? And what is your first memory then after the pizza?
Whitney Cerak: The next memory I have is just like rolling over in the hospital bed and seeing my mom and just crying a lot. That's the only thing I remember probably for a week. It’s just how emotional I was.
She says the five weeks between the crash and her mother's arrival are a blur. They are mostly a blank. The weeks Laura Van Ryn’s family stayed at her bedside, believing she was their daughter, Whitney says she doesn't remember that or them at all.
Matt Lauer: When you think about it now, Whitney, and you think about the fact that here you were struggling to come out of this coma. To figure out what was going on. And as you looked up, these people standing over you were strangers.
Whitney Cerak: I don't remember what was going on, but it must have been messing with my mind. And seeing them and having them call me Laura. But I don't -- I honestly can't even wrap my mind around that.
She was struggling to reassemble her memory in those weeks, sometimes calling Laura’s sister Lisa Van Ryn, "Lisa,” and sometimes calling her "Carly" -- her own sister’s name. She called Laura’s boyfriend "Hunter," which meant nothing to the Van Ryns. It’s one mystery Whitney was able to clear up for us.
Whitney Cerak: Hunter's my dog. Yeah. I'm embarrassed to say that I talk about him that much. Everyone else that I’m really good friends with, I chose my dog? Doesn't really make sense.
Matt Lauer: Tell me about Laura. How well did you know her?
Whitney Cerak: I worked a few banquets with her. We drove up together to Fort Wayne to work the banquet. And that's almost the first time I had really talked to her.
Matt Lauer: From the little you knew about her personality-wise, did you see any similarities in the two of you?
Whitney Cerak: No...
Matt Lauer: Not really. How about physically? When you first met her. Did it ever occur to you, "Hey, we kind of look a little bit alike"?
Whitney Cerak: It never occurred to me.
Matt Lauer: Never thought about it? Now that you've heard this story, and you know what took place over those five weeks, is it hard for you to imagine how you could have been confused for someone else for that long a period of time?
Whitney Cerak: If everyone in the hospital was saying that I was their daughter, or their sister, you know, it makes sense. Why would you doubt what they're saying? And my face was, like, really swollen. So maybe they just thought I would have a different appearance after that horrible accident.
Once Whitney’s true identity was known, her struggle was far from over. Her family took some video at the rehab center. You can see how weak she was, how thin. What you can't see is what was inside.
Matt Lauer: What was the hardest part for you? The hardest thing for you to get back?
Whitney Cerak: Just my emotional state. Like, I just wasn't able to cry. And I don't know, now I am able to cry again. And that's just one thing that was, like, so huge for me. Because I wasn't able to cry over this very, very sad accident that happened.
The crash and the tragic mix-up that followed made her briefly famous. People joked with her about it. But Whitney had a different reaction.
Whitney Cerak: Well, I would just, like, cry out to God a lot. And just be, like, "Why? Why me?" Because everyone else in the accident -- they were just amazing people. And so I never really understood why I was, in a way, left behind. And I was just talking to my dad about it one day and I was, like, "Dad, I don't get this. Why me?" And he's, like, "Whitney, why not you?"
Matt Lauer: So, for five weeks back in 2006, this simply wasn't a possible picture.
Mr. Cerak: Right.
Matt Lauer: So what's it like to look over now, Newell, and see this family as one?
Mr. Cerak: Well it's a constant reminder of what happened that night. But at the same time, then, I look down this couch here and I see my family. And it just brings me tremendous joy.
Matt Lauer: Colleen ?
Mrs. Cerak: I’ll cry (laugh).
Matt Lauer: It's OK.
Mrs. Cerak: This is completeness, right here. It feels good. Just to be together like this.
For the first time, Whitney visited the cemetery where her parents buried the woman they thought was her.
Matt Lauer: You've actually listened to a tape of your funeral ceremony?
Whitney Cerak: It's true.
Matt Lauer: And now you've seen where your parents buried you.
Whitney Cerak: Yes.
Matt Lauer: How many people can say that?
Whitney Cerak: Yeah, it's true. One in a million.
Matt Lauer: How does that feel?
Whitney Cerak: It's so crazy to me to think that I’ve listened to my own funeral service and now I’m seeing where I supposedly was buried. It's just like a dream to me, you know?
Matt Lauer: So Newell and Colleen, when you come back here now and realized what happened here and how your lives have changed over the last two years, what are your thoughts?
Colleen Cerak: I’m just glad we are on this side of the fence right now.
Newell Cerak: The hurt and the pain is definitely on that side of the fence, and this side of the fence, we've been given a gift. We've been given a tremendous gift in Whitney’s life again and to be able to spend more time with her here on this earth is something that we will be forever thankful for.
Taylor University is building a new chapel dedicated to the five people killed in the crash. Whitney, now a junior, is taking a semester abroad, in Ireland.
Matt Lauer: You have a favorite saying. Actually something that you think God will say to you.
Whitney Cerak: I hope.
Matt Lauer: You hope. When it comes time to pass from one world into the other. And it is, "Well done, good and faithful servant." You have that sign up in a couple of different places. Apparently, God wasn't ready to say it to you.
Whitney Cerak: No, my work -- and I know this sounds so corny, but, my work on Earth isn't finished. Yet.
Matt Lauer: So there's a reason for this.
Whitney Cerak: Yeah. There's a reason for everything.
Matt Lauer: And to the Van Ryn family, they stood by your side for five weeks, never left you. Loved you, because they thought you were their daughter. What do you think about them?
Whitney Cerak: I love the Van Ryn family. They're so great. And the fact that they can still look me in the eye and say, "I love you, Whitney," that just speaks so many words to me. And shows me how much they really do love me.
That love was evident when we asked the two families to share a meal. For nearly two years they protected each others' privacy, never speaking publicly about what happened. Recently, however, they decided to write a book together and tell their story.
Newell Cerak: Father, we do thank you. We thank you for this moment right now. Just to be together. We thank you for the friendship that has developed over the last year and a half. Thank you for Don and Susie and Lisa. Thank you again for Whitney, Lord, and for her life and how she's healed and continuing to heal. Thank you for all that we have. In your name we pray. Amen.
In June, 2006, about a week after the mix-up was discovered, Laura Van Ryn’s body was removed from the cemetery near Whitney's house and laid to rest near her own family's home. That same day, Lisa Van Ryn closed out her blog with one last entry that sums up this story as only one who lived it, could do.
(From the blog)
Lisa Van Ryn: Our final encouragement to all is this: do not hang on to the things of this world too tightly. Life here is but a vapor and there is an eternity ahead. As you remember the Van Ryn and Cerak families, let us encourage you to look to your neighbors as well. God calls us to love.
Last year, the Indiana legislature passed a bill that sets clear standards for identifying accident victims. The truck driver who hit the van pleaded guilty to criminal negligence and was sentenced to four years in prison. And contrary to what you might expect, neither family has filed any lawsuits in this case. They say they just want to forgive, and move on. The name of the families' book is "Mistaken Identity."
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