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Michael Brandy, Deseret Morning News
Caleb Ceran, 12, talks with sister Clarissa at University Hospital on Tuesday, which was Clarissa's 19th birthday. She was able to take two small steps.

Tuesday was Clarissa Ceran's 19th birthday. She should have celebrated at home with her mother, father, siblings and friends.

Instead, Clarissa spent her birthday sitting up in her hospital bed for the first time since early Sunday. She also took two small steps forward and back and was able to wiggle her toes. Many would consider those steps a miracle.

"We were absolutely thrilled to see that," her father, Gary Ceran, said. "It's absolutely astonishing to me not just she lived, but I really thought her legs would be lost. When you look at the vehicle and her door and how the car is pushed from the passenger side to the middle of the car, it's absolutely amazing she's alive. It's nothing short of miraculous she even has legs."

Shortly before 2:30 a.m. Sunday, Clarissa, her 15-year-old brother, Ian, 12-year-old brother Caleb, 7-year-old sister Julianna and her parents, Gary and Cheryl, were driving home from a Christmas party when they were struck by an allegedly drunken driver who police say ran a red light at the intersection of 5400 South and 700 West. The impact killed Cheryl and Ian instantly. Julianna was flown to Primary Children's Medical Center but also died from her injuries a short time later.

Carlos R. Prieto, 24, who was not seriously injured, was booked into the Salt Lake County Jail for investigation of three counts of vehicular homicide, all third-degree felonies.

Police could smell a strong odor of alcohol on Prieto, according to a report from the Salt Lake County Jail, and noticed "bloodshot and glassy eyes."

"Prior to the arrest of defendant, Prieto admitted to drinking five beers," the report stated.

Officers also administered a nystagmus test, a field sobriety test used by checking a driver's eyes, which he failed. Prieto was driving on an expired license. This was his third DUI arrest, according to jail records.

Gary Ceran has now lost seven of his nine children, his wife, his brother and his mother in recent years. Five of his children died as infants due to cancer or premature births. His mother, who lived in the basement of his house for 14 years, also died a couple of years ago, the same year his brother died.

But rather than deep grief — or even anger — Ceran and his two surviving children, even at their young ages, exhibit the kind of strength that very few others may never experience.

"To think of a 19-year-old to bury seven of her siblings plus her mother ... " said Ceran, his voice trailing off as he stopped to think of the right words. "Death and adversity are something these guys have an absolutely stunning ability to deal with."

Ceran credits his children's "mature" perspective on death to having dealt with it previously but, more importantly, to their strong faith. Members of the family belong to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Gary Ceran used to work for the church.

"We always assumed these trials would come in ebbs and flows, followed by a series of peace," he said. "Each one prepared us for bigger adversity. Each one we have handled with increasing composure."

But that doesn't mean it has been easy on the family. Gary Ceran's eyes fill with tears as he recalls in detail the accident that claimed his wife and two of his children on Christmas Eve.

On that early morning, no one in the family was sitting in the car in his or her usual spots. Cheryl was driving and Gary, who didn't want to wake up Ian in the front seat, climbed in back. When the other vehicle smashed into the Cerans' car, "the whole car ended up in a crescent shape," Gary Ceran said.

"By all rights, I should have been where Ian was," he said. "If we had all been where we normally are, the three younger ones would be left by themselves."

Despite a leg injury, Gary managed to have each member of his family assess his or her condition. His eyes welled with tears as he recalled placing Ian's head in his lap and stroking his head as blood spilled from his face.

"I checked him for a pulse ... I wasn't able to find one," he said.

Cheryl's head also rested on Ian.

"I couldn't find any evidence of life in her," he recalled.

Gary found Caleb, held his face and did his best to calm him.

"I said, 'We're going to be all right, buddy.' And he said, 'I love you, Dad' about five times. He asked what happened; I said we've been in a really bad accident ... I don't think Ian and your mom are going to make it," he said.

But when Gary talked to his son later at the hospital, Caleb told him he only remembered his father's comforting words that "everything is going to be all right."

A woman who witnessed the accident approached the family wanting to help but was extremely upset. He asked her to sit next to Caleb and hug him while he checked on his other family members. It worked wonders, he said. He is extremely thankful to the woman, even though he never learned her name.

Despite his extreme grief, it's Ceran's faith that he says gives him incredible strength. He calls it part of God's plan, pointing out how his family members were God's children before they were his. He believes everything happens for a reason.

In this case, he said, Cheryl and Julianna were extremely close. It would have been hard for Julianna to lose her mother, he said.

Similarly, he said, he doesn't believe his wife would have been able to handle the loss of more of her children. The ones who survived "were the ones able to cope with the loss of the others," he said.

Gary recalls being "in a fog" after the accident, barely able to see a foot in front of him. He said his mind, for some reason, only worried about the little things, such as the Christmas presents in the trunk. When he returned home, he broke down in tears when he saw Julinna's Princess nightgown on the counter, his wife's blouse on a hanger and "presents for all these people under the tree who would never see them."

Despite this extreme grief, "It's amazing not only how the Lord carries you through these experiences but the way so many people reach out," Ceran said.

As for the man who allegedly caused the tragedy, Ceran is willing to forgive.

"My heart totally goes out to him ... not one iota of anger," he said. "You think of how small the odds are of two vehicles being in the same point at the same time, I can't help but in some way think it was meant to be."

Ceran says Clarissa's hospital room isn't a fraction of the size it needs to be to handle the family's gifts and visitors. Within the first 24 hours of the accident, approximately 500 visitors went to the hospital.

"The outpouring of love is more overwhelming than the event itself," he said. "I couldn't help but think, 'Who's praying for (the other driver)?' because his life is impacted in even more ways than mine. He has to deal with the same grief and loss as I do, as well as deal with the guilt and remorse of being the cause of it. I have thousands of people who are literally carrying me through this experience and he has no one. You tell me, where's the real tragedy?"

Funeral services are tentatively scheduled for Saturday. Ceran hopes the children will be buried next to their siblings under a willow tree at Valley View Cemetery in West Valley City.

For the funeral of one of his other children, Ceran wrote a poem called "The Greatest Miracle." The family, he said, had always prayed for a miracle, one they assumed would include healing their sick children. Instead, he said, he saw from his tragedies a thousand other miracles in the form of people who changed their lives after seeing what Ceran and his family had experienced.

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Caleb has a broken pelvis, a broken rib and a shoulder injury but was well enough to be released from Primary Children's Medical Center Monday. On Tuesday, he was moving around in a wheelchair in his sister's room. The curly-haired boy smiled at visitors, some complete strangers.

"You look at what he's been through ... he's an absolute rock," Gary Ceran said.

A fund to help with the Cerans' medical expenses has been set up at the branches of Zions Bank.

As Caleb sat in his wheelchair next to his sister's bed Tuesday, the siblings displayed a strength of spirit similar to their father's. They believe they are being carried by the strength and compassion of others.

"We're just so grateful for everyone's love and support," Clarissa said. "It means so much to us."


E-mail: preavy@desnews.com