'I Was Very Afraid': Gas Station Cashier Recalls Terror of Los Angeles Riots

As violence erupted outside on the streets of Compton, Son Park had to get out of her business and find safety

From inside a bulletproof cashier's booth at her Compton gas station 25 years ago, Son Park watched in horror as rioters threw rocks and yelled at her to leave.

The Korean mother of three had only inherited the duties of running the gas station two years earlier after her husband died.

Now, she was faced with a harrowing decision.

Should she leave and risk being hurt by other rioters or stay and risk being hurt if rioters were to get inside her business?

"I was very afraid. I wanted to go home, but I was very scared," she said in Korean as her daughter translated.

Park was caught in the middle of one of LA's worst riots. She recalled the memories from 25 years ago, when the city exploded in violence.

Park spent more than 12 hours in that cramped gas station cashier's space -- just 25 feet by 10 feet -- with a fellow employee in the early hours after the riots erupted on April 29, 1992. Her view of the mayhem and destruction was through several-inch thick glass windows looking out onto Rosecrans and Atlantic avenues.

The Los Angeles riots erupted over six days after a jury acquitted four members of the Los Angeles Police Department of charges of using excessive force in the videotaped beating and arrest of black motorist Rodney King after a high-speed pursuit.

More than 60 people were killed, 2,000 were injured and more than 1,000 buildings were destroyed in fires.

Park came to the United States at age 25 in the mid 1970s seeking the American dream. But she had never seen such violence before that day in Compton. Her biggest hurdle up to that point was overcoming a life of poverty on a South Korean farm after the Korean War.

"When I came to the United States I was shocked because there was just so much food," she said. "I could eat oranges and bananas like they were nothing. In Korea, I couldn't do that. But in America, I could work, I could make money, I could buy food."

Even as she watched the disorder in her adopted homeland, she still believed in the American dream, even as the city ignited in flames and businesses were looted.

Despite the tensions she made a lot of money that day. She sold nearly all of her gas and made thousands of dollars. People streamed in to fill up their tanks. She kept money in the register. When it filled up, she wrapped the money in bags and hid the cash under the counter.

Eventually, she thought, "I need to get out of here."

But if she left with the money, someone would likely steal it and set back her livelihood.

"I need to leave and I have to take this money," she said. "If I take this money and they see me, my life will be in danger."

She and the co-worker hid the money in a bucket and covered it with rags and trash to conceal it. They carried the bucket together and walked out of the gas station to their cars before driving away.

"I was super-relieved that Mom had come home unharmed," said her youngest daughter, Carol Park, an award winning journalist and researcher at the Young Oak Kim Center at UC Riverside.

She was 12 at the time. Park recently published a book about their life called "Memoir of a Cashier: Korean Americans, Racism, and Riots."

"I worried that someone would try hurt her, would try to beat her," Carol Park said. "I was always afraid that someone would blow up the gas station, whether it was somebody smoking cigarettes while pumping gas or throwing a Molotov cocktail during the riots."

Today, at age 66, on dialysis and in failing health, Son Park doesn't think about the riots much. She sold the gas station in 2014 and put the violence behind her. Instead she tries to stay as healthy as she can and maintains her relationship with her children, one of whom takes care of her.

"I've always tried to think positively and always tried to teach my children to think positively," she said.

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