Nevada Union family grieves deaths of two students in DUI collision |

Nevada Union family grieves deaths of two students in DUI collision

Community members gathered Sunday night on the football field of Nevada Union High School to grieve the loss of students Justin Gardner and Tyler Nielson.
Photo courtesy Tiffany Graves

To support the families

For condolences: Post memories, photos and videos to the Facebook page In Memory of Tyler Nielson and Justin Gardner

To help financially: A GoFundMe page has been set up, called Nevada Union Memorial Fundraiser

The Nevada Union community was reeling after news spread Sunday that two of its student athletes were killed when a drunk driver reportedly crashed head-on into their car.

Tyler Nielson died instantly in the crash late Sunday morning, as the friends traveled with their families to Pismo Beach for a spring break trip. Justin Gardner was flown to a Modesto hospital, but did not survive.

Fellow student Dawson Fay was seriously injured but is expected to make a full recovery. His brother, Hayden, and mother, Stacy, were in a vehicle just ahead of the wreck, while other friends were behind them.

“Justin was a great kid,” said his mother, Kim. “He was kind and generous and loving and had many friends from many different groups and schools. … We are so devastated. He touched so many lives. He had so many things left to do. He did all the right things, and was headed down to the beach for a well-deserved week off with his friends. A drunk driver took him from us. Our hearts are so broken.”

Tyler’s mother, Franca, called him her “young soul,” adding, “That’s the best word to describe him. He had lots of friends — he was just a good, happy kid.”

Franca said she has been working with Kim Gardner and community members to try to coordinate a gathering at the high school.

“One of the best things we did was move into this community,” she said. “The support has been overwhelming.”

Vigil, counseling, grieving

About 150 students, staff members, parents and community members showed up for an impromptu candlelight vigil at NU Sunday night, said Assistant Principal Shaun Hurtado.

Hurtado was on hand at Ali Gym Monday, along with other staff members and counselors, to provide support to any students who needed it.

A number of students came throughout the day to sit on the football field and talk. At 4 p.m., many more gathered in the gym to welcome the Fays home with hugs and tears.

“It’s a tough way to start spring break,” Hurtado said. “One silver lining, if you can call it that, is that the community has stepped up. Our school theme this year is ‘Ohana,’ which is the Hawaiian word for family. We are one big family. Let’s support each other. Tell people you love them and are here for them. That’s what family does.”

Brad Dal Bon, an NU assistant football coach and teacher, struggled to contain his emotions as he left the gym, talking about how his son, Owen, mentored Justin Gardner as an up-and-coming quarterback.

“The biggest thing about both of these guys, Justin and Tyler — those two could have done some great things,” he said. “They could have changed the world. That’s how important they were.”

Gathering the community

Tiffany Marin Graves, a former vice-president with NU Football Boosters, spent Monday working with current president Jody Osceola to organize a memorial page on Facebook, a GoFundMe account, and ways to help the families.

“We have a little bit of a budget issue, that’s our biggest hurdle — how to involve hundreds and hundreds of kids and their families,” Graves said.

Details for a community gathering are still being worked out, she said, adding that the booster club does not want to use any of the monies collected for the families for that purpose. Any money raised through GoFundMe will be split equally between the families to help with funeral costs, she added.

Connecting with the NU community has been made more difficult because it is spring break and many people are out of the area or even out of the country, Graves said.

But the fact that the kids have a week off is also helpful, she said, adding, “They have been able to grieve at home and re-group.”

“The most used word I hear right now it that this doesn’t feel real,” Graves commented. “We’re all still in disbelief. It’s hard to accept — the kids haven’t returned to school (yet) to these empty chairs.”

Contact reporter Liz Kellar at 530-477-4236 or by email at

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