ST. PETERSBURG — The convenience store was eerily quiet. It was only 30 minutes until closing, so Tien Tran suggested to his boss that they lock up early.
Thanh Hoang agreed. Six minutes later, three men with bandanas covering their faces walked in, laughing.
"This is a robbery," they said.
Hoang, 43, was standing by the front door of Joy Food Mart in Gulfport. He told them to stop joking.
That's when one of the masked men shot him.
Hoang's three boys — ages 8, 10 and 11 — were behind the counter with Tran. As their injured father fell, they didn't speak. They just stood in stunned silence as the robbers turned their attention to the cash drawer.
As Tran frantically scooped the money out of the register, all he could think about was protecting the boys, the ones who referred to him affectionately as uncle.
Tran handed over all the cash, he said. They shot him anyway.
The 25-year-old clerk recalled the brazen Dec. 22 robbery from his hospital bed on Sunday, where he is still recovering from a gunshot wound in his chest.
The day began well, he said. He had taken the boys to the St. Petersburg College campus library while their father worked.
They read books, played on the computer and hung out, as they often do. Tran is president of the youth group at the Vietnamese Mission Catholic Church in Largo, where both families attend.
Tran is like an uncle to the boys, taking them to movies and places like Celebration Station. The boys often begged to accompany their father to work because they liked hanging out with Tran.
When they arrived at the store about 2:30 p.m. for Tran's shift, the boys occupied their time as they normally did: cleaning, dusting, straightening shelves and reading Harry Potter or Goosebumps books.
Tran was aware of a string of violent convenience store robberies in St. Petersburg earlier this month, but he never feared for his safety at the store on 49th Street S in Gulfport. He has worked there on and off for the past four years.
"The neighborhood looks pretty bad," Tran said. "But we've gotten to know the people, and they're all really friendly."
When the masked men walked in, almost jovial, Tran, too, thought it was a joke.
Until one of them shot Hoang in the arm.
Tran described what happened next, outside of the surveillance camera's view, which captured the black and white images he would later see replayed on television.
The video shows a wounded Hoang falling against the swinging front door and landing outside.
What can't be seen, Tran said, is Hoang getting up and running into the street, looking for help.
He found none. "The streets were empty," Tran said.
Now alone in the store with the boys, Tran tried to stay calm.
The boys were shaking, but had done just as he had asked and crouched behind him.
The gunmen demanded money and Tran obliged, trying to keep his hands steady as he grabbed the cash — about $300.
"The other guy just came over and popped the gun," Tran said.
After he was shot, Tran fell back and his head landed on a shelf. His body was in an inclined position, allowing him to see the men run out the door.
"I remember my body couldn't move, but my mind was real clear," he said. "I wanted to die."
In the video, the youngest boy can be seen crawling over Tran's body to activate the silent alarm. The button fascinated the 8-year-old boy. His father had explained its purpose several times, to underscore the importance of not pushing it unless there was an emergency.
Moments later, Hoang returned to the store, injured. Tran told the 11-year-old to call 911.
"I was so afraid the robbers were going to come back and finish off everybody," he said.
The three robbers have not been caught. Gulfport detectives are working with other agencies to see if the latest robbery is connected with any of the others in the Tampa Bay area recently.
Investigators are hoping to match fingerprints left at the scene to a suspect, said Gulfport police Lt. Robert Vincent. If they don't get a match, they also will examine DNA from the prints, he said.
"We've gotten a few tips, but nothing that is an instant case-closer," Vincent said.
Hoang was released from the hospital after a couple of days. Tran is unsure when he will be discharged.
The boys have visited him several times. They ask their uncle about the shooting, but he always changes the subject.
"I'm surprised, they seem pretty normal," he said. "But I don't like to talk about it with them because I do not want to traumatize them any more. I just want to talk to them about happy things."
Dong-Phuong Nguyen can be reached at (813) 909-4613 or [email protected]