Families shocked to learn Ariz. officials mixed up names of woman hurt, woman killed in crash

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Arizona officials misidentify crash victims

PHOENIX — Family and friends spent the past week standing vigil outside a Phoenix hospital room, praying Marlena Cantu would recover from severe injuries suffered in an Arizona traffic crash.

But their world was turned upside down when they learned authorities made a mistake — and the badly bruised, swollen-faced woman in the hospital wasn’t the 21-year-old.

Cantu had actually died in the crash, and her friend — 19-year-old Abby Guerra — was the one in critical condition with a brain injury, broken back, collapsed lung and other injuries.

Guerra’s family had spent the past week planning her funeral, and teammates from Guerra’s University of Evansville soccer team in Indiana planned to fly to Phoenix to attend it. They rushed to her bedside Saturday after learning of the mix-up.

“It’s a miracle but … you feel angry because we mourned all week,” Dorenda Cisneros, Guerra’s aunt, told KPHO-TV in Phoenix on Sunday.

Cisneros said trying to come to terms with the news of Guerra’s death was like a bad dream, and the family is hopeful someone will be held accountable for the mistake.

“You just don’t want this to ever happen to somebody else, you know? To point fingers and this and that doesn’t do any good,” she said. “We just want … some changes to be made so families don’t have to go through this.”

The Arizona Department of Public Safety said in an e-mail to The Associated Press on Sunday that a spokesman wouldn’t be available to discuss the identification mistake until Monday.

Cantu and Guerra were among a group of five friends from Ironwood High School in Glendale, outside Phoenix, who were returning from Disneyland on July 18 when the sport utility vehicle they were in blew a tire. The driver lost control, and the SUV rolled several times, authorities had told the families.

One of the five — 20-year-old Tyler Parker — was taken to St. Joseph’s Hospital and Medical Center in Phoenix, where he died the next day. A woman believed to be Cantu and another person suffered severe head trauma and were also taken to St. Joseph’s.

Officials incorrectly said Guerra had died at the scene, The Arizona Republic reported Sunday.

A hospital spokeswoman wouldn’t release any information Sunday and referred all questions to the Department of Public Safety.

The ordeal was devastating for Cantu’s parents, said longtime Cantu friend Colleen Donovan.

“Every day they went (to the hospital) having hope that she’s living one more day, then to find out it’s not her,” Donovan told the Republic. “And Abby’s parents, too. They’ve gone through all these emotions, and now they find out she’s really alive. Abby still has a struggle to survive.”

Donovan said dental records were used to correctly ID the women.

John Stanley, athletics director at the University of Evansville, said Sunday it has been a week of “rollercoaster” emotions for players, staff and administrators at the school. He said players who had expected to be in Arizona for a funeral now are there to support Guerra’s family.

“They were grief-stricken to learn of the death because of Abby’s popularity,” he said. “Now, they understand that the situation is still very critical. They now have gone from planning to go to a funeral … to having some degree of hope.”

Guerra, a nursing major, was scheduled to begin her sophomore year at the school this fall. Stanley said she emerged as a team leader during her freshman season and has been a dedicated player who is well-liked by her teammates.

Earlier Sunday, the university posted a statement on its website alerting students that Guerra was still alive.

“We do not have any information as to why or how this tragic mix-up occurred,” the statement said. “That is for the officials and the hospital to communicate.”

The school also said Guerra underwent surgery Saturday night and had been in critical condition all week. It asked for continued prayers for Guerra and her family and friends.

“We at the University of Evansville are all remembering that this is still very much a tragedy as Abby fights for life,” the statement said.

A similar situation happened in Indiana in 2006, when a deadly traffic crash drew widespread attention after two families discovered one of the victims had been misidentified as a survivor.

The two young women were similar in appearance, and the family of the one who died had kept vigil for five weeks at the bedside of the survivor, Whitney Cerak, believing she was their daughter. Cerak’s family had buried 22-year-old Laura VanRyn’s body, believing she was Whitney.

The case led to a new law in Indiana that requires coroners to use one of four methods to identify a dead person: fingerprints, DNA analysis, dental records or positive identification by an immediate family member.

Associated Press Writer David Runk in Detroit contributed to this report.

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