Body found of one of two men missing in Suwannee River


The body of Al Melendez (left) was found Monday afternoon.

Published: Monday, March 18, 2013 at 5:06 p.m.
Last Modified: Monday, March 18, 2013 at 10:21 p.m.

The body of one of the two men who have been missing since they tried to save a boy who fell into the Suwannee River was found early Monday afternoon, while the other man remains missing.

Family friends searching for the missing men found the body of Al Melendez, the father of the 8-year-old boy, said Lt. Jeff Manning, spokesman for the Gilchrist County Sheriff's Office.

Melendez's body was found along the riverbank about a half-mile to three-quarters of a mile from the spot he and his intended son-in-law, 19-year-old Haemant Nathooram, were last seen in the Log Landing Wildlife Management Area, Manning said.

Melendez, 38, appears to have drowned, although the District 8 Medical Examiner's Office hadn't issued an official ruling regarding his death as of late Monday afternoon.

Melendez and Nathooram tried to rescue his son, Taylor, who was playing with a remote-control boat when he fell into the river. Nathooram, who couldn't swim, fell into the water trying to save the boy.

The boy was pulled from the water by two others at Log Landing, and then Melendez tried to save Nathooram. Melendez and Nathooram then were swept away by the current.

Family members found Melendez

Melendez's wife, Christina, was searching the swamps with a friend Monday while other friends of the family searched the river and eventually found her husband's body.

The family just hopes they can find Nathooram now, she said. His mother was out there late Monday afternoon searching.

"She wants to make sure they're looking for her baby," she said.

Christina Melendez said her husband was an amazing man who was always willing to help others. He was loud because he was from New York City, but he could meet anybody and they'd love him by the end of the day — even if they didn't care for him at first.

"He was so full of life," she said. "It just beamed off of him."

He was constantly bringing people in need of a place to stay to live with them.

"He helped anybody who needed something," she said. "The hardest thing he could ever say was no."

Melendez, whom everyone called AJ because his name was Al Melendez Jr., loved working for the Adventure Outpost in High Springs as a guide. People who had taken tours of the Suwannee River with him before would ask for him the next time they swung by, Christina Melendez said.

He was wild and carefree but very settled into his life and the responsibilities of caring for his five children, the youngest of whom is 4 and the oldest of whom is 18, she said. He never asked for a break from the kids and brought them everywhere, even on Valentine's Day.

Search has been exhausting

The Sheriff's Office, with help from other agencies, including the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission and the Dixie, Columbia and Alachua County sheriff's offices, mounted a 24-hour operation in search of the two men after they first went missing on the evening of March 11, Manning said.

Dive teams from sheriff's offices have searched the river while the FWC ran aerial searches. Sonar equipment has also been used.

The Gilchrist Sheriff's Office scaled down the search Sunday due to limited resources, Manning said. It had basically run a 24-hour operation for days and was exhausting its resources.

But it has launched back into a full-scale operation following the discovery of Melendez's body, he said, because it gave officials a specific area on which to concentrate their search.

"We've been going miles and miles down the bank of the river and it's very exhausting, and it takes a lot of resources to be able to do that," he said.

The river level is also starting to sink, which will be helpful for those searching for Nathooram.

Searches by boat and air have already begun in the area where Melendez's body was found.

Five children handling death differently

Christina Melendez said the children are handling his death in their own ways. "My daughter doesn't eat much. My son doesn't sleep much," she said.

Melendez's 16-year-old daughter has been quiet.

"It's a hard time in her life to lose her daddy," she said. "She idolized him."

Christina Melendez and her family keeps telling 8-year-old Taylor, whom Melendez and Nathooram tried to save, how his father wouldn't have let anything happen to him.

"He said, ‘Daddy's in heaven now,' " she said. "He said, ‘He's safe. At least he's not in the water.' "

Contact Morgan Watkins at 338-3104 or morgan.watkins@gvillesun.com.

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