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A quiet Monday turns into riot and fire

Monday afternoon, before the rioters reached him, John Chae found the streets around his West Baltimore liquor store unusually quiet.

The Fireside North lounge and liquor store is just a few blocks south of the church where Freddie Gray's funeral took place and the mall where the troubles started. But, with the corner of North Avenue and Smallwood Street so quiet, Chae thought his business might survive the afternoon.

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"I didn't think [the rioting] would come my way," he says. "And then, it was like a tsunami — it came at me with full force."

Chae is 46 years old, a native of South Korea who moved with his family to the United States and Baltimore in the 1970s. His father owned a grocery store on Druid Hill Avenue. The family moved to Howard County when Chae was in middle school. After graduation from Mount Hebron High, he studied architecture. He worked in that field for a time, and in technology. After being laid off, he decided to work for himself.

The liquor store was not a business he wanted to get into, he says, but 10 years ago, when the Fireside North came up for sale, Chae and his brother decided to buy it. Freddie Gray was among the customers; he used to stop there to buy cigarettes.

Chae and his brother were in the store Monday afternoon, along with another employee, when they realized trouble was coming their way.

"The first wave must have been 20 to 30 kids," Chae says. "They had pipes and poles, like batons. It happened so fast. I was shocked. They came into the store and started banging against the [bulletproof] Plexiglas that separates the package section from the customer entrance. But one of them, this boy I'd seen before and who calls me, 'Mr. John,' he said, 'I will protect you, Mr. John.' And he pushed some of them out of the store, yelling, 'Hey guys! This is Mr. John! Get out of here!' I have no idea what his name is, but I will see him again one day and I will thank him."

Minutes later, Chae looked at a monitor linked to one of several security cameras on his corner property and saw "easily 100 to 150 kids coming down the street."

The mob attacked a beauty supply store across Smallwood Street, then came at the Fireside North.

Chae thinks the attackers used a crowbar to break past the two deadbolt locks on his Smallwood Street entrance. He told his brother to move quickly to the second floor. "I was following my brother to the second floor, but [the attackers] broke through the door and got between me and my brother," he says. "And they got over the bar area and just started throwing bottles and rocks at me.

"There's another door between the bar area and the package area, and I managed to get that open and use it to shield me and my employee, and I shoved some of the kids and made my way out of the store. And then they came at me. They got my wallet and my phone, my keys, and I was yelling 'Stop it! Stop it!' and that's when a brick hit me in the face, and it knocked me out."

Chae's employee managed to get away. His brother, meanwhile, was stuck on the second floor of the liquor store. One of the attackers — and maybe others — pointed a gun at his brother and demanded money, Chae says, and at least one of the gunmen fired shots into the ceiling of the second floor.

His brother escaped out of the back of the store.

By then, smoke was pouring from Fireside North.

Chae woke up on the sidewalk, bloodied and stunned, with the sound of a helicopter overhead. A SWAT team arrived. One of the officers pulled Chae off the street into a police vehicle. An ambulance took him to Bon Secours Hospital. He has two broken bones in his face, near his right eye, but no damage to his eyesight.

The fire destroyed the Fireside North. City officials have been pushing to reduce the number of liquor stores in Baltimore; the ugly Monday rioters eliminated at least one.

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Chae is angry and bitter that Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake's administration did not call for the National Guard before Monday's outbreak of lawlessness. The April 25 disturbances and destruction that preceded the riots should have given the mayor enough justification, he says.

Chae is unsure about what happens next. A friend, Steve McCoy, established a fund to help him with medical bills, and already people have donated nearly $22,000 on the GoFundMe website.

He's deeply touched by that but also deeply concerned about where his life goes from here. "I'm a very responsible person," he says. "I have nieces and nephews. They need to see me live as a stand-up citizen. They need to see their Uncle John working hard. It is a very pleasing sight."

Dan Rodricks' column appears each Tuesday, Thursday and Sunday. He is the host of "Midday" on WYPR-FM.

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