Friends say Amelia Nowak was an uplifting force, a determined student and the “one person welcome committee” for newcomers to the South High basketball team in Anchorage.
Derek Duerr was dedicated, selfless and kind, according to friends: He had a knack for connecting with a wide range of people and was always striving to do the right thing.
Days after they were killed in a fiery vehicle crash south of downtown Anchorage, Duerr, 20, and Nowak, 18, were remembered by friends, coaches and teammates as outstanding young students -athletes with promising opportunities on the horizon.
Nowak and Duerr died early Sunday in an accident after their vehicle was struck by another driver whom police charged with driving while intoxicated. Matthew Charles Davis is facing manslaughter and driving under the influence charges related to the accident. Davis, a 23-year-old soldier with the 2nd Infantry Brigade Combat Team at JBER, told investigators he was so drunk he could not remember driving, according to court documents. charges filed against him.
A day after the collision, bouquets of flowers decorated the ground under a charred tree on 15th Avenue and Cordova Street, where the crash occurred. The mothers of the two victims tearfully spoke about their children during a court hearing on Monday. Mourners and friends made regular visits to the site earlier this week.
Nowak was a recent graduate of South High. She was weeks away from taking the next big step in her life – embarking on a college career at Western Washington University, where she planned to study medicine and play on the basketball team.
Duerr was also reaching a new milestone in his life. He graduated from East High in 2021 and was heading to Bellevue Community College, where he also planned to play basketball.
The two dated and worked together at the Alaska Club location in South Anchorage. They had hoped to keep in touch as they forged new paths, according to Fred Falealili, a friend of Duerr’s who worked at the fitness center with the couple.
“They were going to be an hour apart,” Falealili said. “They had planned to see each other every month.”
Nowak came to Alaska from Texas in 2018, friends say. She made an immediate impression on the student body in South.
Abigail Branet played basketball for the Wolverines with Nowak. She said when the two met, Nowak radiated positivity and her upbeat personality became contagious.
“When we were downstairs she would be there to pick us up,” Branet said. “If someone was on the floors, she was the first person to pick them up.”
Taylor Dumlao met Nowak in an AP World History class shortly after arriving at South and had a similar experience.
“She was super caring,” Dumlao said. “She loved everyone, and even if you weren’t on her good side, if you needed her, she was always there.”
The two became close friends and took a senior trip to Hawaii together in July. There was plenty of beach time and shopping on the trip to Maui, Dumlao said. But the highlight was a late evening stargazing excursion.
“We went to look at the stars,” Dumlao said. “It was a really long drive up a mountain. She loved it. It was her favorite thing. We were there for about two to three hours, and she was just sitting outside the car at look at the stars.
“Everything seemed so close to us when we were up there. It was wonderful.
Belen Marchant was a teammate and friend of Nowak at South High and also became a friend of Duerr.
“She’s probably one of the most positive people I’ve ever met,” Marchant said of Nowak. “She was incredibly determined. She had this spark and fire in her that I had never seen before.
Nowak suffered from dyslexia, a condition Marchant is also diagnosed with. She said they laughed at their common reading difficulties. She admired Nowak for his drive to excel in academia.
“She was determined to do well in all of her classes, and school always came first,” Marchant said.
On the basketball team, Nowak was both fiery and friendly.
South High girls’ basketball coach Larry Wilson called her the “heartbeat of the team,” describing her as a player who “did a lot of the dirty work for us.” She dove to the floor for the ball and played tough defense.
She was also the captain of the team, which came with other responsibilities.
Wilson called it a one-person welcoming committee, embracing and mentoring young players.
“As a person, she was extremely kind, a fun-loving person, but also an excellent student,” Wilson said.
Duerr and Nowak have undeniably bonded over their shared love of basketball.
Kyler Johnson had known Duerr since they were both at Wendler Middle School.
“He was always a good guy, always tried to do the right thing, always first in the gym and always working hard,” Johnson said. “You would go to the YMCA and see him there.”
Duerr played freshman and sophomore at East High and served as student director as a junior and senior. He continued to work on his game and improve, with the intention of playing at Bellevue.
He was a photographer who took pictures of local athletes and sporting events and was well known in the basketball community, high schools in Anchorage and beyond.
He befriended Falealili while working together at the Alaska Club.
“We connected with basketball, we enjoyed listening to Kanye West and J. Cole,” Falealili said. “We both went to the same high school, so it was pretty easy for us to talk about all these common interests. He was the kid who always smiled.
At 28, Falealili was a bit older than Duerr and considered him a younger brother. But the gap between their ages never made a difference, he said.
“The age difference never really bothered me,” Falealili said. “Our group of friends was really mixed. There was a 30-year-old man and a 39-year-old man. He was always part of it, he’s just the kind of kid he was.
Marchant met Duerr through his friendship with Nowak, but said he also became a good friend.
“I saw them both just before they passed and I think I was the last person they saw,” Marchant said. “He just gave me a hug and told me how much he loved me and couldn’t wait to hang out again.”
Falealili had planned to reunite to celebrate Duerr’s 21st birthday, coming in mid-October.
“Our birthdays are one day apart,” Falealili said. “So we were planning our anniversary, and I was coming over to Washington to hang out. He was waiting for her impatiently. »
A celebration of life is scheduled for Duerr and Nowak from noon to 4 p.m. Friday at the Bear Tooth Theatrepub.