GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. — In a tragic case of mistaken identity, the family of an Indiana college student believed to have survived a multiple-fatality crash in late April said Wednesday their daughter was dead, while the parents of a student thought to have died in the collision learned their daughter was alive in a Michigan hospital.
The extraordinary story came to light on a blog set up by the family of Laura VanRyn, a 22-year-old student from Caledonia, Mich. Her relatives had kept a five-week vigil at the Grand Rapids hospital bed of a young woman they thought was their daughter.
Uncertainty about the woman's identity grew this week as she regained consciousness, and dental records confirmed the student the VanRyn family had been watching over was actually 18-year-old Whitney Cerak of Gaylord, Mich.
The Cerak family had unknowingly buried VanRyn on April 30, in the Michigan woods about 180 miles north of Grand Rapids.
"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 ... student of hers," the VanRyns said on their blog.
Authorities in Indiana were trying to unravel the heartbreaking mix-up Wednesday, five weeks after five people -- including four students from Taylor University, a small evangelical Christian college in Upland, Ind. -- were killed in a crash on a highway.
Confusion apparently began in the hectic moments after the deadly April 26 crash involving a tractor-trailer loaded with baking flour and a Taylor University van, which was returning from nearby Fort Wayne. Ron Mowery, coroner in Grant County, Ind., whose office handled the death investigations, apologized during a news conference Wednesday.
He described an accident scene where purses and wallets were strewn about. He said acquaintances of the students had identified the survivor taken to a Fort Wayne hospital as VanRyn. He said no scientific testing was conducted to verify the identifications.
"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," Mowery told reporters in Marion, Ind. "And this tragedy unfolded like we could never have imagined."
The truth about the identities of the two young women began to take shape in recent days, as the VanRyns watched Cerak slowly recover from serious head and neck wounds at a Grand Rapids rehabilitation center.
Bruce Rossman, a spokesman for Spectrum Health System in Grand Rapids, said the VanRyn family's doubts mounted as Cerak gained more awareness of her surroundings.
"They said a couple of times they called her Laura and she said, 'No, Whitney,' " Rossman said.
Acting on suspicions, the two families conferred Tuesday, Rossman said, and requested dental records be checked. By Tuesday night the families knew the young woman was not VanRyn. Twelve hours later, at midmorning Wednesday, dental records proved the recovering woman was Cerak.
Rossman said he did not know the specific nature of Cerak's injuries or the extent to which her identity would have been obscured by wounds, bandages or other markings.
"There was some general trauma associated with the accident, including bruising and swelling," he said.
The families issued a joint statement Wednesday, saying these "two wonderful young women shared a striking similarity in size, hair, facial features and body type."
"Our families are supporting each other in prayer, and we thank our families, friends and communities for their prayers," the families said in a prepared statement.
In VanRyn's hometown of Caledonia, friends and residents were stunned.
Monte Munjoy, a middle school teacher who knew VanRyn, said teachers were given the news at a staff meeting "and everybody's jaw just hit the floor."
"We thought she was the sole survivor of the accident," he said.
Brenda Tuttle, whose son attended school with VanRyn, called the news devastating.
"You can't imagine losing a child, then you think your daughter is gone but she's not, or you think your daughter is alive but is not," Tuttle said. "I can't imagine how you would handle something like that."
Five weeks ago, the newspaper in Gaylord, the Herald Times, published an obituary for Cerak. It read, "She lived a wonderful, full, but short life." The casket was closed for her funeral.
Now the bedside vigil has changed, with Cerak's mother and aunt tending to the 18-year-old.