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Two teen boys on spring break killed in Merced County DUI crash, CHP says

Students and community members gather at the high school's football field Sunday night to remember Tyler Nielson and Justin Gardner.
Students and community members gather at the high school's football field Sunday night to remember Tyler Nielson and Justin Gardner.

Two teenage boys were killed Sunday and a 21-year-old woman was arrested on suspicion of drunken driving after a head-on collision in Merced County, the California Highway Patrol reported.

Nevada Union High School senior Tyler Nielson, 17, and sophomore Justin Gardner, 16, were beginning a road trip to Pismo Beach for spring break, according to an email to parents from principal Kelly Rhoden, when an alleged drunk driver, Sabrina Distura, crossed over the center median on Interstate 5 near Highway 165 and struck their car.

Nielson died at the scene, while Gardner was transported to Doctors Medical Center in Modesto before succumbing to his injuries. A third 16-year-old Nevada Union student, junior Dawson Fay, was in the same car and suffered a broken hip among other major injuries but is expected to recover.

Nielson, Gardner and Fay were teammates on Nevada Union's varsity football team, according to MaxPreps, and Nielson had committed to play for Sierra College next season. Gardner and Fay also played basketball for Nevada Union, while Nielson played baseball.

Fay's mother and older brother were caravanning down to Pismo Beach with the car that was hit, said Franca Nielson, Tyler's mother. The Fays were like a second family to Tyler, she said, who had played football with Gardner since he was seven years old.

"He was just a young soul. Just happy, always smiling. He was an athlete, knew everybody at Nevada Union," Franca Nielson said.

Distura, of San Jose, was driving a 2015 Honda north on Interstate 5 at about 11:50 a.m., Officer Shannon Stiers said, and crashed into a Nissan that Nielson was driving. She was transported to an area hospital in CHP custody after complaining leg and lower back pain, then arrested on suspicion of driving under the influence and vehicular manslaughter.

The 17-year-old driver of the Nissan was pronounced dead at the scene, Stiers said. A 16-year-old passenger suffered major head injuries was transported by air to Doctors Hospital in Modesto where he later died, Stiers said.

Everyone involved was wearing a seat belt, Stiers confirmed.

"I’m distraught, but I’m also angry just because of the fact that our children know better than to drink and get behind the wheel of a car," Franca Nielson said. "But that — pardon my French — that bitch decided to drink at noon and killed two people."

Nevada Union classes resume April 2, at which time grief counselors will work with students as needed. Students and community members gathered at the high school's football field Sunday night to remember Nielson and Gardner, and plan to meet on campus again Monday, Rhoden said.

The high school has kept its gymnasium open for those who want company or to reflect.

"It's beyond tragic," Nevada Union athletic director Jeff Dellis said. "Two beautiful kids, gone. Family, friends, teammates, classmates, the community, everyone is just reeling right now."

Dellis added, "People are in the gym since (Monday) morning to help, to allow people to grieve. It's comforting to know our community embraces all of our youth."

Merced Sun-Star reporter Monica Velez contributed to this story.