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The Echo
Taylor University, Upland, IN
Friday, June 14, 2024
The Echo

TU remembers van accident victims

Faculty reflect on tragedy 15 years later

Brad Larson. Laurel Erb. Betsy Smith. Laura VanRyn. Monica Felver.

On April 26, 2006, 15 years ago this week, these four students and one staff member of Taylor University were killed in a tragic car crash that made international news and impacted the Taylor community in monumental ways. 

Just a few weeks before graduation, students Larson, Erb, Smith, VanRyn and Whitney Cerak (‘09) as well as staff members Felver, Connie Magers, Vickie Rhodes and Michele Miller were driving back from Fort Wayne. 

They had been setting up a banquet for soon-to-be inaugurated President Gene Habecker. 

Just 10 miles away from campus, a semi-truck driver fell asleep at the wheel and crossed over the median on I-69, colliding with their van. 

Magers, Rhodes and Miller were taken to the hospital. Cerak was also taken to the hospital, but at the time she was believed to be VanRyn. 

Jim Garringer, director of media relations, was on campus the night of the crash. 

He remembers the campus being deserted despite the nice spring weather as students, faculty and staff gathered in Rediger Chapel upon hearing the news to pray and wait together. 

“A little after 11 p.m., an emergency prayer meeting was called and the students, along with many faculty and staff and others from the community, converged on Rediger,” Garringer said. “It was standing room only. There were many tears, hugs, sobs.” 

It was the first time he had seen such anguish displayed, Garringer said. 

Donna Downs, associate professor of communication, was also a professor at Taylor during the time of the crash. She was an adviser to VanRyn and taught many students who were close to the other victims. 

She recalled the somberness in the chapel as names of the victims were read aloud. She stayed in the chapel until 1 or 2 a.m. and then returned with many others early the next morning for a chapel service. 

A song sung over and over during these services was “Blessed Be the Name of the Lord.” 

The line “He gives and takes away,” stood out especially to Downs. 

“I think a lot of people grew closer to God through the accident, but some people walked further away from God because they didn’t understand and couldn’t get past the why,” Downs said. “... When you have four young kids and an employee who have suddenly been whisked away, it’s hard not to ask why.” 

Garringer said it is important that students remember that those who died 15 years ago were very much like the students on campus in 2021. Some of them involved were about to graduate, they lived and worked on campus. Other students on campus were getting ready to finish up and head home for the summer. Felver was a Dining Commons employee who interacted with students daily. 

Downs recalled the difficulties students faced finishing up the semester while dealing with the grief and confusion that came as a result of the accident. 

“Monday was a very difficult day, as classes reconvened,” Downs wrote in a journal entry in 2006. “Funerals were occurring almost daily that week, and all absences were excused. With the end of the semester nearing and major projects due at the end of the semester, many fell behind. And many really didn’t care about academics any more.” 

The semester finished up and events such as the inauguration of Habecker and commencement went on with special additions to honor the victims. “Blessed be the Name of the Lord” was sung again at graduation and degrees were given posthumously to Larson, Smith and Erb. 

The one student survivor of the accident, who was believed to be VanRyn at the time, was awarded a degree as well. Cerak went on to graduate in 2009.  

Then, five weeks after the accident, the mistaken identity of VanRyn and Cerak was discovered. It was, in fact, VanRyn, who had died in the accident and not Cerak. 

This identity mix-up resulted in Taylor becoming the subject of national and international news. Garringer remembers getting calls from media outlets around the country asking for a response to the story. 

Taylor continued in the spotlight as the book “Mistaken Identity: Two Families, One Survivor, Unwavering Hope” was published in 2008. Soon after, the Memorial Prayer Chapel was built and dedicated to remembering those who died. 

“God used Taylor’s tragic loss to make a tremendous impact on a watching world,” a pamphlet from the prayer chapel dedication read. “Countless stories were received, telling how the prayerful response of this community encouraged many and even led some to a saving knowledge of the Lord Jesus Christ.” 

Though there are no current plans in place to mark the 15th anniversary of this tragedy, Garringer hopes Taylor adopts an annual tradition to honor the lives of those who died in the van accident, as well as other students and faculty who have passed since. 

“As people retire from here and go away and new people come in, it becomes more of a memory and less of a ‘reality,’ I guess,” Downs said. “It will always be a reality for those who lived through it, but it becomes a less-spoken-about memory those left behind don’t discuss … because those who didn’t experience it can’t really understand … which is happy, but sad because it was such an impactful time, such an influential time in all of our lives.”

Life is short, Downs said. Though the absence of these Taylor community members have left holes in the Taylor community that will always be present, this pivotal time in Taylor’s history has shown God can work through any and all situations for his glory.