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Crash survivor, misidentified as classmate who was killed, marvels at life in new book
Mixed Up Victims NY 5270456
This combination of undated photos released by Taylor University shows Whitney Cerak, left, and Laura VanRyn, both students at Taylor University. The family of Cerak was incorrectly told Whitney had died in an April 26, 2006 van crash, while the family of VanRyn was erroneously informed Laura was in a coma. Cerak, 18, of Gaylord, Mich., actually had been hospitalized since the crash. VanRyn, 22, died in the crash. - photo by Associated Press
    TRAVERSE CITY, Mich. — Critically injured in a highway crash that killed five others, mourned as dead by relatives and friends after a stunning identity mix-up, Whitney Cerak still marvels at being alive — and wonders why.
    ‘‘I’m the only person I know who’s listened to her own funeral,’’ the 20-year-old says in the epilogue of a new book written by the families whose lives were intertwined in an ordeal of joy, sorrow and faith. ‘‘That was pretty weird.’’
    Why did she survive the wreck on April 26, 2006, when four fellow students and a staff member from Taylor University in Upland, Ind., did not?
    ‘‘I still don’t get that,’’ Cerak writes in ‘‘Mistaken Identity: Two Families, One Survivor, Unwavering Hope,’’ which was released Tuesday. ‘‘Maybe I’m not supposed to. Even if I can’t figure it out, I know that God has a purpose for it, even if I never completely understand what it may be.’’
    Cerak, who grew up in Gaylord, Mich., spent five weeks in a coma while the parents of Laura Van Ryn stood vigil by her side, believing she was their daughter.
    Authorities in Grant County, Ind., had confused the two young women during the chaotic aftermath of the collision between a semi-truck and a school van on Interstate 69, midway between Indianapolis and Fort Wayne. Their blond hair and even some facial features were similar.
    Cerak’s parents, Newell and Colleen Cerak, declined to view the body they believed was their daughter’s, preferring to remember Whitney as she had appeared in life.
    Meanwhile, Don and Susie Van Ryn — and others who knew Laura — believed her appearance had been altered by facial injuries. Only when she began mentioning strange names while slowly regaining consciousness did they suspect something was amiss, the 275-page book explains.
    One day, her physical therapist asked the patient to write her name on a sheet of paper. ‘‘WHITNEY,’’ the woman wrote. As her father wheeled her back to her room, she mumbled, ‘‘False parents.’’
    Uncertainty gnawing at her, Van Ryn’s sister, Lisa, watched a ‘‘memories of Whitney’’ video the family had been sent. The eyes, the teeth, eerily resembled those of the person she thought was her sister.
    Her father checked with one of the people who had identified the victims at the crash scene. There was ‘‘room for doubt,’’ the person admitted.
    Finally, after another therapy session, Lisa knelt in front of the young woman and asked her name. Whitney, was the response. And her last name? Cerak.
    The Van Ryns were devastated, but quickly arranged for dental records to be checked.
    That night, Colleen Cerak was awakened by a phone call from the Grant County coroner. ‘‘We have reason to believe your daughter may be alive,’’ he said. Whitney’s sister, Carly, furiously urged her mother to hang up, believing it was a prank.
    But within hours, they stood at Whitney’s bedside, sobbing with joy.
    ‘‘Mistaken Identity,’’ co-written with author Mark Tabb and published by Howard Books, a division of Simon & Schuster, weaves together narrative and religious testimony.
    Both families are deeply committed Christians; Newell Cerak is a pastor at Gaylord Evangelical Free Church.
    They say although uncomfortable in the media spotlight, they are telling their story to share ‘‘how God has sustained two families through His grace.’’ They have heard from people around the world who were inspired by their strong faith.
    The book also is a story of healing — for the Ceraks, Van Ryns and others.
    Whitney has made a remarkable recovery and is on track to graduate from Taylor next year, university spokesman Jim Garringer told The Associated Press. She is spending this semester in Ireland in a study-abroad program.

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