Memories flooded Jim Garringer’s mind, emotions overtaking him for a moment.
Garringer, the longtime director of media relations for Taylor University, was discussing the misidentification earlier this month of two junior hockey players in Canada. One teen was reported dead. He wasn’t. Another was reported as alive. He was dead.
“I still remember,” Garringer said, “clearly being called to an emergency meeting on the morning of May 31, 2006, and being told the person in that hospital bed was not Laura Van Ryn.”
Garringer’s voice cracked, and he stopped talking. Muffled sobs could be heard through the phone line.
“I can speak dispassionately about this so often,” he told IndyStar this week, “but sometimes it catches up with me.”
Garringer was the face for Taylor University after a deadly bus crash and an unfathomable case of mistaken identity drew national media attention to the small campus in Upland, Ind.
Twelve years have passed since Whitney Cerak was misidentified as 22-year-old Van Ryn after a semi tractor-trailer crashed into a van carrying five students and a university employee on I-69. Cerak, then 18, was the only survivor.
Indiana has since taken steps to help avoid such mix-ups, a kind of amplified tragedy that occurred earlier this month in Saskatchewan. A bus carrying members of the Humboldt Broncos junior hockey team collided with a tractor-trailer. The collision killed 15 and injured 14 members of the team.
In Canada, the mix-up between the two Broncos players was discovered two days after the crash.
Five weeks had passed before the Van Ryn and Cerak families learned about the mistake. Cerak’s family had a funeral for the woman they believed was Whitney.
Meanwhile, Van Ryn’s family surrounded the comatose woman they thought was Laura as she slowly recovered in a Michigan hospital. They learned the truth after Cerak regained consciousness and wrote her name on a piece of paper.
Ron Mowery, then-Grant County coroner, explained at the time that purses and wallets had been strewn across the highway.
Someone, likely a rescue worker, found Van Ryn’s identification and placed it with Cerak, who was flown by helicopter to a hospital.
The young women looked remarkably similar. Side-by-side photos released after the crash showed similar long blond hair, fair skin and wide smiles.
At the time, Indiana coroners used presumptive evidence to initially identify victims and later confirmed through science, said Tony Ciriello, training director for the Indiana State Coroner’s Training Board.
Presumptive evidence includes driver’s licenses, vehicle registrations, home addresses and anything else that could tie the deceased to the circumstances of their death.
That presumptive identification, Ciriello said, was often backed up and made positive by family members who were brought in to see the remains.
Cerak’s family did not want to view the body. Van Ryn’s family couldn’t tell that the badly wounded survivor was not Laura.
A coroner could decide whether identifying a body needed an extra step, such as comparing DNA tests, fingerprints or dental records. Often that only happened for fire victims or in circumstances when bodies were disfigured or facially injured.
After the Taylor University mix-up, Indiana lawmakers took away the coroner’s discretion in 2007, mandating that bodies be identified by a close family member or by scientific comparison in all unnatural or suspicious deaths.
Canadian officials did not say how they made the mistake involving the hockey players. News reports said the Broncos had all dyed their hair blond as a show of unity going into the playoffs.
The Indiana law means it now takes longer for the names of violent crime victims and others to be released to the public, but Ciriello said there have been no serious problems.
And the practice protects the families, he said, from a horrible mistake.
Garringer recalls the competing emotions of that emergency meeting at Taylor University when the news of the mistake was shared for the first time to campus officials.
There was joy, he said, for Cerak’s family and a competing sense of “temperance and loss” for the Van Ryns.
“The thing for which I’m most grateful is the quick action of the people who arrived on April 26, 2006, led to Whitney Cerak’s life being saved.”
She went on to marry her sweetheart and build a family, Garringer said. She now lives in South Bend.
Efforts by IndyStar to reach the Van Ryn and Cerak families were unsuccessful.
The families grew close after the crash, Whitney Wheeler (formerly Cerak) said when she returned to Taylor University in 2016 to recall the tragedy. Also killed in the accident were Elizabeth Smith, 22; Bradley Larson, 22; Laurel Erb, 20; and Monica Felver, 53.
“The Van Ryns, they loved me like I was their daughter because they believed that I was their daughter,” Wheeler said during the memorial.
“And even after I wrote ‘Whitney’ and their world changed and they knew that I wasn’t their daughter, they still treated me like I was their family.”
Call IndyStar reporter Vic Ryckaert at (317) 444-2701. Follow him on Twitter: @VicRyc.
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