'We had buried her': Humboldt crash mix-up resonates with U.S. family who lived through similar experience

In 2006, Colleen and Newell Cerak were told that their daughter had died in a horrific crash on an Indiana interstate. But there was a mixup. Whitney Cerak was not dead. Whitney had been misidentified as another teenage girl, Laura VanRyn.

The Ceraks are praying for the LaBelles and Tobins

Whitney Cerak (L) was misidentified as Laura VanRyn (R). Cerak's parents were advised that she had died in a crash in 2006. In fact, she survived. It was VanRyn who died in the crash. (Courtesy Cerak family)

Few people on Earth truly know the emotions the families of two Humboldt Broncos experienced after the coroner mistakenly said one of the teens was alive and the other was dead.

Colleen and Newell Cerak are two of those few.

In 2006, the Ceraks were told their daughter had died in a horrific crash on an Indiana interstate. But there was a mix-up. Whitney Cerak was not dead.

In the Broncos crash, Xavier LaBelle was declared dead but had actually survived. Parker Tobin was thought to be alive, but had died. Both players were riding with their teammates when their bus collided with a semi-trailer.

"We've been praying for the [Humboldt] families involved," Colleen told CBC's Saskatoon Morning.

Two people on the bus carrying the Humboldt Broncos junior hockey team when it crashed were misidentified — one player pronounced as dead is alive, and another believed to be alive is dead, the Saskatchewan Justice Ministry says. One of the players initially announced as dead was identified as Xavier Labelle, right. In fact, Labelle survived the crash. Parker Tobin, who died, was previously "misidentified" and believed to have survived, the ministry said. (Left: Submitted by Brandon Ewanchyshyn. Right: Submitted by Tanya Labelle)

Heartbreaking mistake 

"In my mind we had buried her, we had a closed casket, we had not viewed the body but we thought for sure it was a cruel joke at that point," Colleen said.

"It was a total shock," said Newell. "It was quite an overwhelming emotional experience."

Whitney had been misidentified as another teenage girl, Laura VanRyn. VanRyn had, in fact, been one of the five people killed in the Indiana crash. The VanRyn family had sat with Whitney for weeks, convinced she was their daughter.

"They were so gracious," Colleen said. "I just remember hugging them, and we met and I was just saying I was so sorry."

The Cerak and VanRyn families decided not to sue over the mix-up. Newell said that any accident scene with mass casualties is chaos and that they had empathy for those responsible. He added that after seeing the aftermath of the Humboldt crash, he can again understand how confusing and chaotic the situation was for everyone involved, including the coroner.

Members of the hockey community took to social media to send their condolences and offer support to the families of the Humboldt Broncos hockey team. (Amanda Brochu)

Thoughts and prayers with the Broncos 

The Ceraks thoughts and prayers are with the LaBelles and Tobins.

"It's so devastating, it's so overwhelming," said Newell.

"I just pray for them because everything is so raw and so new right now and there is so many people surrounding them when they really do just need to have each other and have that quietness of the family," Colleen added.

Whitney Cerak recovered from her injuries. She lives in Indiana and is married with children.

with files from Saskatoon Morning