Joe Davidson

Survivor of crash that killed his high school teammates: 'This will hurt forever'

Dawson Fay doesn't remember the impact, but he is grief-stricken with the aftermath.

A football star for Nevada Union High School in Grass Valley, Fay said he is fortunate to be alive but also bears a sense of guilt of being the lone survivor pulled from a crumpled four-door Nissan on Sunday afternoon. He said the image of twisted metal, shattered glass and death is seared into his memory.

"I'm just numb and so sad, and this will hurt me forever," Fay said Monday afternoon in the Nevada Union gym, where dozens of people from the region came to offer food, drinks, hugs and support, often without words.

Fay suffered a fractured left hip and facial lacerations. The loss of his two best friends cannot be healed or covered with bandages. Fay survived a head-on collision Sunday on Interstate 5, north of Highway 165 near Los Banos, though he said through tears, "My football brothers, literally my brothers, did not. They're gone."

Tyler Nielson, a senior, was killed when a Honda headed north crossed into the dirt median and slammed into Nielson's vehicle. Justin Gardner, a sophomore sitting behind Nielson, died about four hours later.

Sabrina Distura, 21, of San Jose, drove the car that hit the boys, according to the California Highway Patrol. She was hospitalized with minor injuries and then arrested on suspicion of driving under the influence and vehicular manslaughter.

Said Fay on Monday, "I'm still in shock. I've already cried out all the tears. It doesn't seem real. I literally lost an older brother and a younger brother. My childhood, they're in my memories. There's no other people but them. I feel really thankful to be here. It could've been way worse for me. I'm super thankful. It really hurts in my heart knowing they're not here with me now.

"I think about it all the time – we're supposed to be in Pismo Beach (for spring break). We're not. I woke up this morning hoping it was all a dream."

Fay said his mother, Stacy, drove the lead car of three in a caravan of family and friends headed to the Central Coast for a getaway. When she noticed that Nielson's car was not behind her, she pulled over and phoned her son. No answer. The third car included Nevada Union student-athletes.

They arrived to the crash scene, Fay said, and offered immediate comfort amid the chaos.

Fay said images keep repeating in his mind.

"I saw the car swerve into our lane and looked at Tyler, but don't remember the impact," Fay said. "I then remember two people holding me up after I woke up, and all this wreckage. I started to walk. I saw Justin under the car and people yelling to get him out.

"And this is the part that still hurts and I can't get over: I saw Tyler. Alone. Nobody covered him up for 20 or 30 minutes. He was just laying there. I'll never forget that. I don't know how to get that out of my mind. We sat there in shock. I may always be in shock."

Nevada Union will keep the gym open with grief counselors and other community members on hand to offer support, athletic director Jeff Dellis said.

"People need to grieve," he said. "We're here for them."

Nevada Union is in the process of hiring a football coach. Brad Dal Bon, a longtime teacher and assistant coach, is the interim coach. Dal Bon said Nielson and Gardner were "the kinds of kids that impact lives. They could have changed the world. We're all so thankful to have Dawson."

Said senior student-athlete Jack Frazer, "It'll be really hard to walk on campus next week after spring break and not feel their presence, not see them. They were great guys. We're all in a state of confusion and shock. And we'll support Dawson and love him to help him and everyone get through this."

Nevada Union High School football coach Dennis Houlihan and Tyler Nielson share an embrace during the 2017 season. Courtesy of Nevada Union

A 6-foot-1, 190-pound running back and linebacker, Fay rushed for 1,173 yards and 11 touchdowns in 2017. He will compete next academic year, he said, with extra motivation.

"Everything I do in football and in basketball will be for Tyler Nielson and Justin Gardner, for sure," he said.

Dennis Houlihan, who coached Fay, Nielson and Gardner last football season before stepping down, said in a text message to The Bee that Nielson would hug him after every practice and game.

"What I wouldn't give to get another hug from this young man," Houlihan said.

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