Taylor community remembers van accident
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Taylor community remembers van accident

Holding onto hope, recognizing time is no guarantee

By Natalie Nohr | Contributor

Students gathered to comfort each other after the tragedy. (Photo provided by Michael Conroy of Associated Press)

Students gathered to comfort each other after the tragedy. (Photo provided by Michael Conroy of Associated Press)

Tuesday, April 26, 2016 marks the 10th year since the day Taylor’s community lost five of its members: Laura Van Ryn, Brad Larson, Betsy Smith, Laurel Erb and Monica Felver.

“There were two phases in our lives, the phase before April 26 and the phase after,” Director of Media Relations Jim Garringer said.

According to Garringer, on the day of the accident, a team of dining service students and staff traveled to the Fort Wayne campus to set up for President Eugene Habecker’s inauguration, set to take place the next day in Fort Wayne, and then on Friday in Upland.

The team finished in Fort Wayne and began the drive back to Upland after getting pizza. As their van reached the 66-mile marker, a northbound truck driver crossed the median of the highway and struck the Taylor van. Five passengers were killed. Four Dining Services employees survived, but were severely injured: Whitney Wheeler (Cerak ’07), Vickie Rhodes, Michelle Miller and Connie Magers.

Garringer said it was later discovered that the truck driver, Robert Spencer, had fallen asleep.

Back on Upland’s campus, President Habecker was working on his inaugural address when he received a phone call that, Marylou Habecker said, made his face turn white. President Habecker was told that an automobile accident had occurred involving Taylor students.

“Then we heard that there was one student fatality, and then there was another one. It just kept getting (worse),” President Habecker said.

Marylou said they immediately prayed.

At that point, the names of those involved in the accident were still unknown, and parents and families had not been notified, according to President Habecker.

As the night wore on, students, faculty and staff gathered in Rediger Chapel to pray and wait together for more news.

When the names of those who died were read, Marylou said the room was filled with wailing and weeping.

“You could not make sense out of it. It just did not make sense,” President Habecker said.

President Habecker said that they received strength from the Lord throughout this time, through each hour.

He said he often prayed Exodus 4:12,“Now go; I will help you speak and will teach you what to say,” particularly as he reworked his inauguration speech in light of the accident.

The administration made the decision to move forward with the approaching inauguration, as preparations had already been made and guests were arriving, according to President Habecker. Visiting family and friends encouraged him and Marylou as they carried on.

Meanwhile, Wheeler, who was in critical condition, had been misidentified as Van Ryn at the scene of the accident. Garringer said Van Ryn’s wallet was close to Wheeler in the wreckage, and that it was assumed that the blonde woman was Van Ryn.

Five weeks later, it was discovered that the woman who survived was not Van Ryn—it was Wheeler. After a series of confusing occurrences about the woman’s identity, Garringer said she was asked to write her name. She wrote “Whitney.”

“Five weeks later (after the accident) . . . on May 31 we got the call very early in the morning . . . that Whitney Cerak (Wheeler) had not actually died. She had survived . . . and it wound up gaining worldwide attention,” Garringer said.

Wheeler said recovery was challenging and painful.

“It was exhausting work all day. Just learning, re-learning simple tasks. . . . Recovery was really tough,” Wheeler said.

According to Wheeler, Taylor accommodated her throughout the recovery process; she received assistance and guidance from Scott Gaier in the Academic Enrichment Center and was able to graduate on time.

The Cerak and Van Ryn families eventually worked together to write and publish a book on the misidentification, “Mistaken Identity.”

Families of those involved in the accident will gather for a private dinner on Sunday, according to Campus Pastor Jon Cavanagh. Some of the families will speak during Monday’s chapel service, along with President Habecker and Skip Trudeau, vice president for student development. The annual Service of Remembrance and Hope is Tuesday at 4:30 p.m. in the Memorial Prayer Chapel, and on Wednesday, Wheeler will speak in chapel.

Cavanagh said he hopes that the services will open conversation among students on both the accident and how they can serve one another in times of grief.

“When you lose something or endure a tragedy, I think you become very aware of the risks . . . of what’s at stake every day,” Cavanagh said.

According to Marylou, the experience of tragedy is a language that only those who have felt its pain can speak. The Lord allows tragedy, but those who endure it are then able to encourage and hold others up as they grieve their own loss.

“We don’t want this story to simply become a distant memory; it’s too important to forget,” President Habecker said.

Several years after the accident, the Memorial Prayer Chapel was built to honor the people who died that day. President Habecker hopes students will visit the prayer chapel often, not only to pray, but also to come to know the stories and dreams of those who died ten years ago.

“We have a place of worship dedicated to the people who died in the accident, and it has a way of uniting us and centering us on what’s important . . . love for God and love for each other,” freshman Nate Dehmlow said.


The article above is part of a series of pieces regarding the 10-year anniversary of the 2006 van accident. To read the other articles in the series, please click on the hyperlinks below.

Brevity and beauty

Bruised hearts

Comfort in community

Redefining identity

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