- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 1, 2006

CALEDONIA, Mich. (AP) — Whitney Cerak and Laura VanRyn looked remarkably alike, both attractive young women with blond hair, similar facial features and the same build and height.

They were together the night of April 26, returning from banquet preparations with a group from Taylor University, when a tractor-trailer slammed into their university van, peeling off the side and killing five persons.

Miss Cerak’s family was told their 18-year-old was among the dead. Miss VanRyn’s parents were told their 22-year-old daughter was alive but seriously injured and in a coma.

The VanRyns kept vigil at the young woman’s bedside for weeks, but as she gained consciousness, she began saying things that didn’t make sense. This week, they discovered that the recovering patient wasn’t their daughter at all. She was Miss Cerak.

“I still can’t get over it. It’s like a fairy tale,” said Miss Cerak’s grandfather Emil Frank. “It’s just so unbelievable. But we feel just as much for the family that found out it was not their daughter.”

Miss VanRyn’s parents, who had kept a daily Web log of the young woman’s recovery after the crash, disclosed the mix-up on the blog (lauravanryn.blogspot.com).

“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,” the family wrote.

Miss Cerak’s face was swollen after the crash, she was in a neck brace, and she had brain damage, broken bones and bruises. The Grant County, Ind., coroner said that the accident scene had been strewn with purses, and that students had identified the survivor as Miss VanRyn. No scientific testing was conducted to verify the identities.

“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,” said Coroner Ron Mowery. “This tragedy unfolded like we could never have imagined.”

In Miss Cerak’s hometown of Gaylord, in northern Michigan, her family held a closed-casket funeral that drew 1,400 people.

Miss VanRyn’s family, meanwhile, detailed the many small steps they thought their daughter was making toward recovery at a rehabilitation center in Grand Rapids: feeding herself applesauce, playing Connect Four with a therapist.

As recently as Monday, the VanRyns reported: “While certain things seem to be coming back to her, she still has times where she’ll say things that don’t make much sense.”

Mr. Mowery said Miss VanRyn’s boyfriend initially questioned her identity based on the young woman’s behaviors and comments. Then Miss VanRyn’s father became suspicious when she referred to him by a pet name he didn’t recognize.

“He started asking questions, and the process evolved to where she actually came to and suggested who she was and wrote her name,” Mr. Mowery said.

When relatives took their concerns about the young woman’s comments to hospital officials, dental records confirmed the injured woman was Miss Cerak.

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