Randy Melko runs through the 1600 block of South Ocean Boulevard two or three times a week.
In fact, the Socastee High School boys cross country coach had planned to run in that part of Surfside Beach early Monday morning. However, he didn’t wake up quite as early as planned after enjoying Christmas festivities the night before.
On Monday afternoon – after Melko had gotten his belated run in – he learned of how tragedy had struck earlier in that area. Aiden Keahi Thomas Mendoza – a 17-year old male surfer who was known by most as Keahi Mendoza and was the Braves’ top runner this season – had been pulled from the water about 7:30 a.m. after drowning while surfing, according to Horry County Coroner Robert Edge.
“Actually this morning my plan was – I was getting some tires changed on my car at 10 o’clock – so I’m like, well, if I can get early enough I’m gonna go run. I probably would have been running down there around that time,” Melko said with a shaky voice. “I think I’ve run past there probably a hundred times this year because when I run, I go down on the beach and run. And like I said, my plan was [to go] if I got up early enough – which I didn’t because we enjoyed Christmas too much last night. I ran later in the day, but I didn’t know about it until later in the afternoon.”
It’s kind of crushing to hear something like that.
Socastee cross country coach Randy Melko
Melko referred to Mendoza as “a success story.”
“The last couple years he really grew up and [he was] just one of those kids that you love to see,” the coach said. “[He was] this unique little ninth-grader that really grew up and got more confident in himself and turned into an outstanding runner and somebody that – beyond that – he just turned into a really good kid, and it’s just a shame for this to happen.”
Melko described Mendoza as a kid who cared for others, using his actions after Hurricane Matthew’s wrath as an example.
“When the hurricane came through here and the Rosewood development behind Socastee High School – it got hit really hard – he organized like a whole group of mostly guys from the school to go over there and go through the neighborhood and ask people, you know, ‘You need some help?’ ” Melko said. “[They’d] help them move stuff to the curb or whatever things they needed done; he kind of spirited that. … [He was] a kid that sort of matured to even something like that where he’s trying to help other people out.”
Two physicians staying at a nearby condo saw Mendoza and grabbed him from the water, according to Fire Captain Prentice Williams with Surfside Beach Fire Department. A bystander tried CPR, along with arriving rescue crews, but attempts were unsuccessful, Edge said. Surfside Beach police were also called to the scene, according to Williams. Edge said an autopsy revealed Mendoza’s cause of death was drowning.
While going into the ocean alone can be a dangerous action, Melko said he can relate to someone going that route.
“Back in the day I was a triathlete so I would swim out there in the water. So I understand his whole [situation] – like people say ‘Why was he out there by himself?’ – like, I know I’ve done that,” he said. “For these triathlons I would go out and swim in the ocean by myself and I know there’s a risk. It’s one of those [things where] you understand it and you just do it. Especially, you’re 18 years old, you don’t really think about that, anyway. When I was 40 years old I didn’t think about it; I just did it.”
Mendoza was the second Socastee High student to have died in less than a week. On Thursday morning, three teenage girls died in a single-vehicle wreck Thursday morning on Bay Road in the Burgess area of Horry County. A 14-year-old female from St. James Middle School, a 15-year-old female from St. James High School and a 15-year-old female from Socastee High School died from injuries sustained in the wreck, according to Horry County Deputy Coroner Michelle McSpadden.
The families requested the girls’ names not be released, and the coroner’s office is honoring that request, the deputy coroner said.
[We’re] trying to figure out what’s going on and what happened. Hearing from some of his teammates and they were really, really heartbroken over it.
Socastee cross country coach Randy Melko
“Coming off the heels of the car accident the other day – one of the girls there was from Socastee – it’s been a tough week for that kind of stuff,” Melko said.
During November’s early signing period, Mendoza signed a Letter of Intent to continue his cross country career at Anderson University.
“It feels like it just happened somewhere else,” Melko said a few hours before attending a gathering of friends and family at Mendoza’s house Monday night. “You know, I live there, I run past there two or three times a week. I’ve swam in there. And I could’ve been down there this morning. I just didn’t get up early enough to go do it. It kind of hits home. At the same time, you can’t not live your life. You do what you want to do and what you like to do, and sometimes there’s serious consequences from it. I don’t know how you make sense of that to others – for friends and teammates and all of that, but we’re going to have to do it somehow.”
Staff writer Elizabeth Townsend contributed to this report.