Mix of Emotions After Accident Victims' ID Blunder

Abby Guerra is the one in critical condition; friend Marlena Cantu died.

July 26, 2010, 2:19 AM

July 26, 2010 — -- Last week, Abby Guerra and Marlena Cantu were driving home from Disneyland when the left, rear tire of the sport utility vehicle in which they were traveling blew out and the SUV flipped over.

Three of the five passengers -- all high school friends from Glendale, Ariz., returning from California -- were killed. Two were in intensive care at St. Joseph's Hospital in Phoenix -- but which two?

Before Saturday, the families thought they knew.

The family of Cantu, 19, was told she was in critical condition with brain and back injuries. They gathered at her bedside in Phoenix. Guerra's family was told that the 21-year-old had died.

"This last week, at the hospital, with constant vigil around the clock, was very difficult," said Delores Retena, the girlfriend of Cantu's father.

Guerra's friends and family flew to Phoenix this weekend for the funeral. Her teammates at the University at Evansville in Indiana held a car wash to raise money for the trip.

Then came the shocking news Saturday: The authorities had made a mistake. Dental records were used to correctly identify the women, said longtime Cantu friend Colleen Donovan.

"You find yourself thinking: How can this be?" said Arthur Caplan of the University of Pennsylvania's Center for Bioethics. "We have DNA testing. We have excellent dental records on many people. We have X rays, all kinds of records kept on people. How can it be that we didn't identify someone a week later?"

Though Guerra and Cantu looked alike, with brown hair and similar features, Cantu was two inches taller, had her wisdom teeth and had a large scar on her abdomen from when her appendix had been removed.

Late Monday, the Maricopa County Medical Examiner's Office said the mistake was due to caseload.

"It was our understanding that all survivors had been transported to a local hospital and identified. As such, the Office pursued dental records for April Guerra, the only occupant who had not been identified. Due to Office's caseload, the postmortem examination was scheduled for and occurred on Friday, July 23, 2010," said a statement released by the Medical Examiner's office.

After a week of grieving, Guerra's family has her back, but Cantu's family has lost her days before realizing she was even gone.

"They [Guerra's soccer teammates] were grief-stricken to learn of the death because of Abby's popularity," said John Stanley, the college's athletics director. "They now have gone from planning to go to a funeral to having some degree of hope."

Not the First Tragic Mix-Up

This is not the first instance of an identification mix-up after a deadly car crash.

In 2006, Whitney Cerak and Laura Van Ryn were returning to their college campus in Indiana when the vehicle they were riding in was hit by a truck.

Van Ryn died and Cerak was in critical condition in the hospital. Because of a mix-up, Cerak's family held a funeral for her while Van Ryn's family kept vigil in the hospital.

Five weeks later, when Cerak started to regain consciousness, both families were told there had been a mistake.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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