Misidentification of Humboldt Broncos crash victims resembles Indiana case

Cases of medical misidentifications - although extremely rare - are not unheard of.

In Indiana, coroners no longer rely on family members to say, 'Yes that's my daughter. Yes that's my son'

Parker Tobin, left, was misidentified and believed to have survived the bus crash when in fact he had died. Survivor Xavier Labelle, right, was initially announced as dead. (Left: Submitted by Brandon Ewanchyshyn. Right: Submitted by Tanya Labelle)

One family received the worst news, the other the best.

After believing Humboldt Broncos hockey player Parker Tobin had survived the team's bus crash in Saskatchewan, his family was told there had been a mistake.

He was actually dead.

It was Xavier Labelle, whose relatives had been mourning his death among the 15 victims of the collision, who was alive and recovering in hospital.

The heart-wrenching mistake by the Saskatchewan coroners office left many Canadians baffled, but high profile cases of medical misidentifications — although extremely rare — are not unheard of.

'A series of unfortunate circumstances'

A similar case in 2006 inspired lawmakers in Michigan and Indiana to pass stricter protocols for identifying victims.

"Two individuals in a very similar situation were misidentified," said Joseph Hefner, a forensic anthropologist and assistant professor in the department of anthropology at Michigan State University.

"They were both about the same age, same basic body build, both had long blond hair and through a series of unfortunate circumstances they were mistakenly identified as the other," he said in an interview Tuesday with CBC Radio's Edmonton AM.

Laura Van Ryn, pictured on the left, died in a 2006 van wreck that left Whitney Cerak unconscious in hospital. (Taylor University)

On April 26, 2006, Whitney Cerak, 18, was the lone survivor of a van crash on the interstate that killed four of her classmates and a staff member at her college.

In the chaos that followed, Cerak was misidentified as 22-year-old Laura Van Ryn by first responders who based the identification on the proximity of Van Ryn's purse.

The switch meant Van Ryn's family stood by Cerak's bedside for five weeks, believing the bandaged, unconcious girl in the bed was their daughter.

Meanwhile, the Cerak family held a funeral for the daughter they thought they had lost. 

The mix-up wasn't discovered until Cerak regained consciousness and was able to write her own name.

The case is strikingly similar with the Humboldt case and helps to explain how false identifications occur, Hefner said.

'People don't want to think about it'

"I don't know if anyone has sat down to determine how many misidentifications take place each year in Canada or the United States," Hefner said. "I think those numbers would be really hard to get because people don't want to think about it.

The risk of misidentification increases in high trauma situations with multiple victims where the bodies of both the dead and living have been disfigured, he said.

Distraught families may also be incapable of providing a reliable identification of their loved ones, Hefner said.

"In situations like the Humboldt crash and with this crash in Indiana, you have a massive amount of trauma generally to the head and it makes a visual identification almost impossible."

Since the Indiana case made international headlines, changes in state law now require forensic pathologists and coroners to identity the dead using scientific means.

In Michigan, scientific identifications of the dead are also mandatory in cases where a visual identification is not considered possible.

Even those who die at home of natural causes often require medical identification, Hefner said.

'It becomes a puzzle'

"You could no longer rely on family members to say, 'Yes that's my daughter. Yes that's my son.'

"It's not possible for it to happen now. It's got to be based on scientific certainty and as much evidence as possible."

In these cases, experts rely on existing medical records to make a positive identification — carefully comparing records until they find a match.

"The forensic anthropologist builds what we call a basic biological profile. From the skeletal remains, we determine the age, sex, stature and ancestry of the individual," Hefner said.

"And then it becomes a puzzle … we keep doing that until we get either identification or we've exhausted all resources.

"You have to make a call based on individual characteristics. It could be the skeleton, it could be the teeth but it has to be something truly individualizing."

'Confusion in an unimaginable tragedy'

The Saskatchewan coroner's office was following a standard procedure to identify the victims of the Humboldt crash, but officials acknowledged that it was a challenging situation.

Relatives were involved in identifying the remains of the bus crash victims at a makeshift morgue, Drew Wilby, a spokesperson for Saskatchewan's Ministry of Justice, said during a Monday news conference.

Dental records are the best way to identify the deceased but those can take days to track down, especially given that the hockey players were from all over Western Canada, he said.

Let's all pray that something like this never happens again.-Drew Wilby

The Tobin and Labelle families were notified of the error on Sunday night — the same night thousands of family members, friends and fans attended a solemn prayer vigil in the team's home rink.

The families issued a joint statement on Monday, saying they are "grieving together" and "hope the focus will remain on those grieving and those recovering, not the confusion in an unimaginable tragedy."

With files from the Canadian Press and Ariel Fournier