On April 26th 2006, a college van was travelling on a highway in Indiana containing nine people, mostly students, from Taylor University. The van collided with a truck and tragically three students and one teacher died at the scene. One of the survivors who was identified as Laura Van Ryn was in a coma for a few months after the incident.
Laura’s family was at this survivor’s side during her recovery. However, about a month into her recovery it was revealed that this survivor was actually Whitney Cerak, a woman who was declared dead at the scene of the accident Laura had actually died at the scene but been identified as Whitney. The two women had switched identities.
God reveals himself
Contemporarily, this news made headlines internationally and has unsurprisingly been utilised a story lines in TV dramas since. However, through this dark and outlandish incident, many people came to Christ and many peoples' faith was reaffirmed.
In the book ‘Mistaken Identity’, a biography of the catastrophe written by the two families of the young women, the families discuss both Laura and Whitney having a strong relationship to Christ in their lives before the accident and Whitney, the survivor, continues to declare Jesus as Saviour well as do both women’s families and most other people travelling in the van that day 11 years ago.
Both families remained steadfast and trustworthy in their faith throughout the far-fetched ordeal In the book, they both describe the strength and reliance they had on God’s power as they both at some point during the scenario, had shared the belief that their daughter had been killed.
Role model families
The two misidentified women’s devotion to God and the situation they were in brought the spotlight on their spirituality through this news worthy ordeal. Laura’s sister in the biography states, “The way she talked about [Jesus and his apostles], she made them come alive like real people, not just people in the bible. That’s what God was like for her. She didn’t just believe in facts about Him. She had this faith that made everything in the Bible come alive.”
Similarly, Whitney’s sister Carly says that Whitney made a small sign earlier in the year and hung it on her door to remind herself to ‘serve God in everything she did.’ Eleven years later, I myself imagine what it must have been like to be friends with women who had such dedication to Christ and I am encouraged to think more like them.
Other aspects of the coincidence brought attention to God’s love even through the trauma both families were experiencing. A few days after the incident, Laura’s father, Don, was outside the hospital. He noticed a lot of news vans and one reporter approached him and asked him about the truck driver who had hit the van, “What would you like to say to him?” the reporter asked.
Don explains that the reporter looked excited for him to elicit vengeance but he replied, “I would like to tell him that I feel sorry for him and that I forgive him, harbouring bitterness and anger isn’t going to get you very far, God has shown me mercy and forgiven me. How can I help but do the same?”
The reporter was disappointed by Don’s lack of anguish. Soon after, a law firm rang Don and offered a lawsuit against the truck driver; the law firm explained that they had previously won millions of dollars from very similar cases. Don said no.
During the recovery of ‘Laura’ who was actually Whitney, Laura’s sister, Lisa, created a blog containing updates from the incident particularly regarding the survivor’s health. The blog became an international success and hundreds of anonymous people had messaged Lisa telling her that their faith was reaffirmed because of the trust and obedience Lisa had towards God.
One person wrote that the story of the recovery was ‘such a cool testimony of God’s work in the details of our lives.’ The blog also received messages from close relatives of other victims that had passed away, sharing encouragement. In person. During the recovery, all the family friends of both Laura and Whitney often exhibited amazement towards the strength the families had.
As perplexing as the story is, Whitney’s sister, Carly, epitomises it perfectly by stating, “death is Satan’s greatest way to attack this world. Amazingly God takes what Satan uses to attack us and uses it to bring us together and reveal himself the most. Through Satan’s greatest strength, God’s power still overcomes and is stronger.’
Nobody's life in that van on April 26th 2006 is worth the 'task of distribution of the Good News'. However, I believe that none of them would retain bitterness knowing that God has used their story to exhibit his authority and his love.
Anneliese Farrer is a 21 year old film student from Deakin University in Melbourne, where she also grew up. In her spare time she exercises, reads non-fiction books and tutors in mathematics. She aspires to be a screen writer and director in the near future.