We tend to take for granted that the terrible misfortunes we see on the nightly news befalling people every day will never ever happen to us. Perhaps that is so for the majority of folks. But it is not certain by any means.
By the time I was thirty I had already experienced more than my share of personal misfortune.
When I was sixteen I was in a terrible car accident, the result of an inattentive driver running a red light one particularly foggy morning. The car I was a passenger in got t-boned (on my side). The last thing I remember before the impact was looking to my right as we entered the intersection and seeing a pair of headlights bearing down on us through the fog like a laser beam. The resulting crash put me in the hospital for more than two weeks and required two surgeries and six months of rehabilitation.
But that was a relative cakewalk compared to the terror I experienced the following year.
The First Armed Robbery
I used to work at a local supermarket and, although I probably worked a thousand shifts as a box boy and clerk, I’ll never ever forget one shift in particular.
It was a weekend shift and the place was hopping. The front lobby was a mass of humanity with all nine checkout counters open and at least two or three people waiting in line for each register.
Adding to the controlled chaos was the fact that I was one of only two box boys on duty that day, as somebody had called in sick, and so I was frantic trying to keep all the counters from backing up with crushed groceries.
A few minutes before noon my attention was directed to the screeching of tires as a car violently backed up in front of the large double glass entrance doors to the supermarket.
At first I didn’t really think too much about it, figuring it was simply some ticked-off driver that couldn’t find a parking space in the busy parking lot and decided to park in the no-parking zone.
I only wish that would have been true.
The next thing I knew three guys wearing pantyhose over their faces stormed into the lobby screaming at the top of their lungs.
At first I couldn’t hear what they were saying because the place was buzzing with so much activity and people. But as they continued to scream, more and more people stopped their own discussions and the din within the store slowly gave way to a point where I could finally hear what they were screaming.
“Nobody move, Motherf*****s! Hands in the air!”
That’s when I also noticed the sawed-off shot guns they were holding.
One of the robbers went to the “front” of the registers where the people were queued up and turned his gun on them, shouting obscenities and telling them to keep their hands in the air. It was apparent his only job was to control those folks and keep them from interfering with the robbery.
Another robber went directly to my friend Louie, who was the checkout clerk on the express lane at counter nine and started screaming at him to open the register. Louie was a very kind older man of about 55 or so who had come to American from Vietnam. Louie kept his cool, but had trouble opening the register.
At this point, I was still in a state of disbelief at what was happening. Part of the reason was I was at the opposite end from where these guys entered the store, bagging groceries for a customer at register one.
In the back of my mind, I still hadn’t truly processed the danger that we were all in. The whole thing was so surreal. Despite the masks and guns, and uncivilized actions of the three animals that just entered my store, the gravity of the situation had not yet fully registered with me.
While all this was going on, the third robber started walking along the “back” of the check stand counters yelling still more obscenities and telling the other clerks to get their registers open too. That’s when it hit me. Uh oh, this guy was making a bee-line right for me!
So here comes this guy with the scary pantyhose mask and a sawed-off shot gun in his hand yelling at me.
“Get on the floor, Motherf*****!”
He wanted me to move because I was blocking his access to check stand number one. Looking back, I think the original intent was for him to start at one end of the check stands while his buddy worked from the other and they would meet in the middle.
I heard the robber, but my legs wouldn’t move. In fact, I was essentially paralyzed with fear.
By the time he got to register three he screamed it one more time. “I said get on the floor, Motherf******!”
Still, I couldn’t move.
A second later he reached me and threw me to the ground, face down. He then took his gun and placed it to the back of my head and told me not to move or he would blow my head off. A woman screamed and I thought my life was over.
This guy was clearly pissed as my unintentional lack of cooperation had messed up their plans a bit. Because of me, it was going to take them twice as long to get all the money.
It is hard to describe the feelings that swim through your brain when somebody has a gun pointed at you. Aside from fear, the most powerful feeling I experienced is total helplessness. You are literally at the mercy of somebody who could care less if you live or die and, as a result, your life literally hangs in the balance.
The very first thought that crossed my mind when I was on the ground, was what is it going to feel like when he pulled the trigger? I remember thinking about my mom and dad and sister, and I prayed to God too.
It seemed like an eternity, but it couldn’t have been more than a minute or two before the second robber finished taking the money from all nine registers. That’s when they all bolted out the door and took off out of the parking lot.
I still remember my unsympathetic manager yelling at me to “Go get the license number of the car!” as they sped away.
The Second Armed Robbery
Ten years after the first robbery, I was eating at a pizza joint with a couple friends very late one evening when three guys stormed into the restaurant with guns drawn.
What is kind of funny is I told my two friends as it became apparent what was happening, “Here we go again.” This time I pledged I would keep my wits about me no matter what.
One of the robbers screamed at the manager to take them to the safe.
I was hoping all three were going to go to where the safe was located, but no such luck. Only two robbers went to the back room.
The other robber came into the dining room pointing his gun at us and ordered everyone to put our heads face down on our tables. At the time there were maybe eight or ten people total eating in the dining room, that’s it.
Again, the complete helplessness of being held against your will at gunpoint is indescribable if you haven’t experienced it. In this case though I was actually quite worried because these guys didn’t wear masks and I feared they might decide to kill us all rather than risk being identified.
Surprisingly, the guy holding us in the dining room didn’t ask for our wallets or money. I guess they were focused on getting the money from the safe.
Although my head was buried on the table, I could hear everything that was going on in the back room and it wasn’t good. The manager (or maybe he was the owner) was trying to be a hero, saying he didn’t have the combination – and the robbers weren’t buying it. In fact, it sounded like they were using physical violence on him to get him to open the safe up. I’m not sure if that is true or not, they may have just been kicking around furniture, but it was extremely scary whatever was going on in there.
Soon after, a gun shot rang out and that’s when I thought this was really going to be the end of all of us.
Surprisingly, nobody in the dining room made a peep. I really expected one of the women to scream, but they all kept their composure.
After the shot, I heard the manager say something like “Okay, okay, I’ll open it.” Maybe thirty seconds later I heard sounds from the back room that sounded similar to loose change being spilled, and soon after the robbers were gone.
I survived another robbery.
It was only later that I found out the shot was fired into the ceiling to scare the manager.
Tips for Surviving an Armed Robbery
- Cooperate with the robber for your safety and the safety of others. Comply with the robbers demands.
- Remain calm and think clearly.
- If you have a silent alarm and can reach it without being noticed, use it. Otherwise wait until the robber leaves.
- Be careful, most robbers are not professionals and are as nervous as you are.
- Don’t talk except to answer the robber’s questions.
- Don’t stare directly at the robber.
- Prevent surprises; keep your hands in sight at all times.
- Don’t make any sudden moves.
- Don’t chase or follow the robber out of your business. Leave the job of catching the robber to the police.
With three exceptions, the actions of all of the armed robbery victims from both of my experiences helped ensure nobody got hurt.
In the first robbery, my store manager asked me to violate the last recommendation by trying to get the getaway car’s license plate number. And I inadvertently violated the first rule when I failed to get down on the ground after being told to do so. In the second robbery, the manager inexplicably decided to be uncooperative at first before finally coming to his senses.
Any one of those three mistakes could have resulted in tragedy. Thankfully, they didn’t.
The good news is that, in both cases, nobody ever panicked. Nobody spoke to the robbers unless they were spoken too. And as far as I could tell, nobody tried to stare anybody down or made any sudden moves.
My Advice to You
As a double victim of armed robbery the best advice I can give you is to stay calm, don’t be hero, and try to be as compliant as you possibly can.
Keep in mind the odds are good you’ll come out of an armed robbery just fine if you can manage to keep your wits.
Remember, the money and personal belongings can be replaced. You can’t.