CLEARWATER — Ricky Melendez pulled himself out of bed when his alarm went off at 4 a.m. It was time to start a day that would nearly end his life.
He let his 4-month-old Lab puppy, Mila, out of her crate as he brushed his teeth and got dressed for work. The 29-year-old was a bit tired, having spent the previous day at a water park in Orlando with his cousin and his brother. But he was excited to get to his new job at Sprouts Farmers Market in Palm Harbor, where he was the dairy manager. He was trying to get the nickname "The Milkman" to catch on.
Melendez climbed into his tan 1999 Toyota Camry and began the haul up U.S. 19. As he drove, he planned his day: Orders for milk, eggs and yogurt would need to be in before 7 a.m. He stopped at Dunkin' Donuts for coffee and a bagel, and then was back on U.S. 19. It was 4:20 a.m. now. With a green light at Tampa Road, he sailed through the intersection in the middle lane, singing along to a song.
He would later find out that four teenagers in a stolen Ford Explorer were speeding through Palm Harbor with two other teens in a stolen Chrysler Sebring. The Explorer ran a red light at more than 100 mph, slamming into his Camry and flipping down Tampa Road. Three boys died at the scene while a fourth was hospitalized.
But the Explorer's lights were off, and in the predawn dark, Melendez saw nothing. He was singing, and then he remembers hearing the loudest bang he could ever imagine — as if a gunshot had gone off a few feet from his ear. His Camry started spinning. He screamed, his eyes wide open as he watched the world turn in circles.
Finally, the car stopped in the intersection, a few feet away from a car in the turn lane. He sat in the southbound lanes facing oncoming traffic, but everything was still. Melendez patted his body. He was alive.
"I've got to get out of here," he thought to himself. The airbags had burst and the car was smoky.
He pushed the car door open and stood up. He had played basketball when he was younger and sprained his ankle before; it felt like that, as he limped to the sidewalk.
He leaned on a pole and stared at the glass and shattered mirrors, his car looking like the engine was missing.
He saw blood on the pavement. It wasn't his, so he knew it had to be someone else's.
The police were there in seconds, telling him to sit on the curb, to relax. But it hurt too much to sit. He called his girlfriend, Marina Buttrick. The 25-year-old graduate student didn't feel her phone ring the first time, half-asleep in bed. But the dogs were stirring and the next time her phone buzzed, she picked it up, even though it was an unfamiliar number.
Melendez was calling from an officer's phone.
"I was in an accident," Melendez said, his tone calm from the shock. He said his car was totaled. He told her what happened, about the car filled with teenagers. She asked if they were okay. Melendez asked a deputy, then got back on the phone.
"No, they're not okay," he told her. Then, "Please come get me."
When she got there, Melendez was already in an ambulance. His ankle had swollen to the size of a grapefruit.
"I was in complete shock,'' Buttrick said. "I had no idea the car would be destroyed. It's crazy he's here."
She followed him to Mease Countryside Hospital, where doctors would X-ray every part of his body. They would say he had a broken bone in his foot, a shattered collarbone and internal bleeding in his stomach near the burn from his seat belt. He would be okay, though he would be out of work for at least a month, and may still need surgery.
Melendez remembers his father running into his hospital room. He said he was looking at him with an expression that broke his heart. They hugged as they cried, both so thankful he was alive.
"I was actually told if it would have been if anything — if there had been one thing that went differently — I wouldn't be here right now," Melendez said. "If they would have hit me a couple more inches to the left, if I had been going a mile per hour faster, I wouldn't be here. If I would have been in the farthest left lane, I probably wouldn't have been here."
From the television across from his hospital bed, he learned what happened to the boys in the car. The Ford Explorer had tumbled so far down the block that he had never seen it, not even the boy who had been thrown from it. He was choked up.
"No matter the circumstances, no matter what those kids were doing, it's sad for them and especially for their parents," he said. "No one deserves to die that young, no matter what they were doing."
Melendez is home now, in a boot and a sling. He's monitoring the bruising on his stomach and scheduling MRIs for his broken bones. He is surrounded by friends and family who laugh with glee over him being alive and sob knowing he could just have easily been dead. Melendez says he feels blessed, and hopes the tragedy shows kids that joyrides are so much more dangerous than they can seem.
"Just look what happened," he said. "Not only did they die, and risk their lives and you know someone, an innocent person just driving going to work is now affected by and almost could have been killed.
"I would just say just think twice before you decide to go in a car and steal it."
Contact Lisa Gartner at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @lisagartner. Contact Laura C. Morel at email@example.com. Follow @lauracmorel.