By Richard Jerome Jill Smolowe and Thomas Fields-Meyer
Updated June 19, 2006 12:00 PM
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When the young woman’s eyes fluttered wide open for the first time after weeks in a coma, her boyfriend was struck by their color. “It’s crazy,” Aryn Linenger, 25, wrote in a journal that he planned to share when his girlfriend woke up. “Your eyes look all blue right now. Usually they have that awesome greenish tint.” Even so, Linenger would later say, “her hands, her feet, her complexion” seemed so familiar that the unusual tint stirred no doubts that the woman in the bed was Laura VanRyn, 22, a gregarious Taylor University senior known for her love of sports, The O.C. and God. Linenger was not alone in his certainty. As the VanRyn family tended to the patient, they posted blog entries about her progress, asking people to “please pray for her to emerge from her coma soon.”

But after the woman finally awoke, the VanRyns were in for an unfathomable shock. “The young woman we have been taking care of over the past five weeks has not been our dear Laura,” they wrote in a May 31 post. She was Whitney Cerak, 19, a Taylor freshman who, with Laura, had been in a horrific road accident on April 26 while returning to the main campus of their evangelical Christian college in Upland, Ind. On April 30 the Cerak family had buried “Whitney” near their home in Gaylord, Mich., while the VanRyns of Caledonia, Mich., had spent weeks nursing “Laura” through a tracheotomy and surgeries to set a broken leg and elbow. After the families met on May 31, the Ceraks wrote on the VanRyn blog, “Our joy for ourselves was pushed aside by the pain we felt for them.” Both families then retreated into their faith to redirect their whipsawed emotions—leaving everyone else to wonder, How could this have happened?

As Whitney emerged from her coma, there were signs something was amiss. On May 23 Laura’s sister Lisa, 27, reported on the blog, “She started hitting me. And kicking me.” Three days later Lisa wrote, “As far as recognizing us … we think that sometimes she does and sometimes she doesn’t.” Asked on May 29 by a therapist to write her name, she scrawled “Whitney Cerak.” By then she was increasingly making comments that caused the VanRyns to question her identity. The full measure of Whitney’s anguish became apparent on June 1, a day after dental records unscrambled the mess. When someone entered her room carrying flowers, she burst into tears and said, ‘You think I’m dead.'”

More bewildering, for most of the five weeks that Don and Susie VanRyn and their other three children watched and prayed over Whitney, braiding her hair and painting her toenails, they did not seem to realize she was not Laura. At a June 4 memorial service for Laura, her boyfriend acknowledged it was incomprehensible “how a man could date a girl and love a girl for three years and not know” who it was he’d wheeled along hospital hallways hour after hour. Unlike most of the 1,951 mourners, who echoed the “Jesus calls us to His love” sentiment offered by Don, a former pastor, Linenger, a Taylor grad, allowed, “There’s been times these last couple of days that I’ve been mad at God…. I feel like it’s the biggest trick he’s ever played on me.”

Certainly the VanRyns walked into a mind-bending situation. Whitney’s face, initially swollen, was distorted by tubes as she lay, eyes closed. As for the Ceraks, parents Newell and Colleen had no reason to ask questions: They never viewed the body that they buried in a closed casket. Also there is this: Whitney and Laura look uncannily alike. Sharde Armstrong, a Taylor sophomore, says she often mixed up the two, though Whitney was a bit taller and heavier. “Sometimes I’d start to say, ‘Hey Whit,’ and realize it wasn’t her,” she says. While photos released to the press show a blonder Whitney, Armstrong says, “Laura’s hair had gotten lighter; it was much closer to Whitney’s.”

None of that, however, explains why Whitney was initially mistaken for Laura. The confusion began April 26, when a tractor-trailer drifted across the divide of I-69 and swiped a Taylor van carrying five students and four employees. The van spun around, ejecting seven passengers, Whitney among them, before coming to a standstill in a grassy ditch. “The van was peeled open on the driver’s side,” says Sgt. Rod Russell of the Indiana state police. “There were documents, papers, wallets, personal effects and backpacks strewn all over.”

As state troopers, police, emergency workers, firefighters and university personnel descended, it quickly became clear that five people were dead and at least two others were gravely injured. “The first job we have is to preserve life,” Russell says. The two with the worst injuries, one of them a woman with long blonde hair, were flown to Parkview Hospital in Ft. Wayne, Ind. The other seven and the driver of the tractor-trailer were taken to Marion General Hospital. Gathering of identification was a secondary concern, and the task wasn’t easy. “The grass was six to eight inches high, and muddy,” Russell recalls.

In Marion, three Taylor officials, who had come to the hospital to comfort congregating students, were handed a list of five names by a hospital rep and asked to match the names to the five bodies in the hospital’s morgue. “They were not aware that they in fact were doing the official identification,” Taylor president Eugene Habecker told reporters. One of the three, Wynn Lembright, knew Whitney personally, but he, like the others, did not think to question the names on the list, Habecker said. They identified one of the bodies as that of Whitney.

The mishap still might have been averted had Whitney’s sister Carly, 21, who was at the Marion hospital, been pressed to identify the body in the morgue. Officials decided not to push. “She was very, very hysterical,” says Ron Mowery, the Grant County coroner. Habecker also noted that the Ceraks “wanted to remember [Whitney] as they knew her in full health.”

Four days later and one day after Whitney’s 19th birthday, 1,400 people gathered at the Gaylord Evangelical Free Church, where her father, Newell, is a youth minister. Her boyfriend, Matthew Wheeler, 19, tearfully read a poem he’d written. Others recalled her volunteer work with the elderly and her positive attitude.

The first doubts surfaced after Sara Schupra, Laura’s Taylor roommate, visited the Fort Wayne hospital and discovered that the girl in the bed had freckles—Laura didn’t—and was not responding as a friend would. On May 18 she spoke with college officials. That day, as Whitney was transferred to a rehab center in Grand Rapids, Taylor officials opened what President Habecker described as a “discreet fact-finding effort.” Because neither family had raised concerns, he said, they did not contact the coroner’s office.

The inquiry was still under way when the Ceraks received a late-night phone call on May 30. Doug Aumiller, stepfather of Whitney’s boyfriend, says they were told to bring Whitney’s dental records to the rehab center immediately. Whitney’s mom, Colleen, a gym teacher, woke up the dentist, then, records in hand, drove with Carly and their pastor to Grand Rapids, while Newell drove home from New York. On the VanRyn blog, Carly wrote, “We spent the day crying and praising God for the ‘resurrection’ of Whitney”—with time out for Whitney to make a call to her beloved dog Hunter and to tell Wheeler by phone, “Matthew, I love you. Come be with me.”

The saga is not over. Whitney has yet to speak publicly of how it felt to be trapped in a hospital bed, cared for by loving strangers. “I don’t know if she knows everything,” says Whitney’s grandfather Emil Frank, who has talked with her briefly on the phone. “She was quite irritated that the VanRyns didn’t know who she was.” Holly Bowman, a close friend who has visited Whitney at the hospital, says they kept the conversation casual: “She was pretty tired.”

For the Ceraks, the joy of reunion is tarnished by empathy for the VanRyns’ grief. “Every time I look at Whitney, I think of the VanRyns,” Newell told Carly. The VanRyns, meanwhile, had Laura’s body exhumed Tuesday, with plans to rebury her the next day in Grand Rapids Township. As both families lean on their faith to make sense of life’s mysteries, Andy Smith, a pastor from the VanRyns’ church, offers this: “I think we all ask why this happened. And the answer to that question may never be forthcoming.”

THE APRIL 26 ACCIDENT

Around 8 p.m., along I-69 in central Indiana, a northbound tractor-trailer crossed the divide and swiped a Taylor University van carrying nine people. Sgt. Rod Russell, who came to the scene 40 minutes later, calls the crash “the most horrific, saddest event I have been involved with in 21 years.”

A GRAVE MISTAKE

For a month, a plot in Gaylord, Mich., bore Whitney’s name and Laura’s body. Now the VanRyns will rebury Laura.

LAURA’S MEMORIAL

On June 4 parents Don and Susie VanRyn looked on as older daughter Lisa sang “Arms of Love” while strumming an acoustic guitar, the instrument she taught Laura to play.