That evening four Taylor students and a staff member were killed when their van was struck by a semi-trailer. The group was traveling back to the Upland, Ind. campus on Interstate 69 from the nearby Fort Wayne campus after setting up for a banquet. Three staff members and a student, Whitney Cerak, were seriously injured in the wreck.
A Christian university in northeast Indiana, Taylor was deeply shocked by the tragedy, but it was five weeks later when the accident drew national attention. Cerak had initially been identified at the scene as Laura Van Ryn. Cerak revealed her true identity after she emerged from a 20-day coma. Initially her injuries had been so severe it prompted the mistaken identity, including Van Ryn’s parents believing it was their daughter.
On Sunday, the third anniversary of the accident, Taylor will hold a Day of Remembrance and Hope in its new Memorial Prayer Chapel, built and dedicated in the wake of the accident. The chapel was dedicated last year with plaques acknowledging accident victims and a symbol of the university moving forward in its collective faith walk.
Sunday’s event is intended to be more low-key that memorials the past two years, according to Taylor director of media relations Jim Garringer. The service is also meant to provide an outlet for remembering all in the university community who died while affiliated with the campus.
“We wanted to recognize that as sad as we felt three years ago it was not the first time that we’ve experienced the loss of students, staff and faculty at Taylor,” he said. “We want to memorialize not only what happened in 2006 but honor the memories of others who have been dear members of the Taylor family who are no longer with us.”
Cerak, who was a freshman at the time of the accident, is graduating in May with a psychology degree. Garringer said she will join her sister at a mission project in Kenya this summer and will return next spring and “at that point see what the Lord would have her do.”
Her graduation will also be a clear turning of the page in the school history as essentially all the students who were enrolled at the time of the accident will have graduated.
“For many of us here there are two portions of our lives, before and since the accident,” Garringer said. “We have maintained contact with the family members and can report they are doing well to varying degrees.
“In a few weeks, with a few exceptions, the entire student body will have turned over since the accident. God has been faithful to us and faithful to the families. The healing process is complex and a different process for everyone.”
Sunday’s service will last about 30 minutes and be a time of prayer, worship and reflection. While emotional, those emotions will not be as raw as the night of the accident that Garringer still remembers so vividly.
“That evening I specifically remember as the prayer service broke up around 2 to 3 a.m. seeing a man fall face-down on the ground weeping in prayer,” he said. “I recall other people doing the same thing.
“The whole focus on prayer has been really cemented in us. We are so grateful to the community and the love and support and prayers for the families. We have seen so much evidence and how God is good and has been faithful to those who love him.”
NBC “Today Show” interview with the Van Ryn and Cerak families:
“Dateline NBC” feature on the accident: http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/21134540/vp/23842419#23842419