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What We Know About the Americans Who Foiled the Train Gunman in France

French police stand guard along the platform next to a Thalys train of French national railway operator SNCF at the main train station in Arras, northern France. Photo: Philippe Huguen/AFP/Getty Images

Yesterday, five people aboard a high-speed train bound for Paris heroically subdued a well-armed man and successfully protected the lives of some 500 other passengers on the train. Three of those heroes were American: two U.S. servicemen, Air Force Airman First Class Spencer Stone and National Guardsman Alek Skarlatos, and their friend Californian college student Anthony Sadler.

According to the Associated Press and the New York Times, the confrontation began when an unnamed French passenger tried to enter a bathroom aboard the train, encountered a man armed with a Kalashnikov automatic rifle inside, and jumped on the gunman in an attempt to subdue him. After a gun went off multiple times in the ensuing struggle (wounding a passenger), and the assailant starting walking through the train, the Americans and a British business consultant named Chris Norman ultimately attacked the gunman, disarmed him, and knocked him out, then tied him up.

The gunman, identified in reports as 26-year-old Moroccan Ayoub El-Khazzani, was also armed with a Luger pistol and a box-cutter-like knife. Authorities are saying the man was associated with some kind of radical Islamist movement, and some reports have indicated he may have recently traveled to Syria and back.

Anthony Sadler (L) and Alek Skarlatos (R) hold their medals as they sit in a restaurant after a brief ceremony in the town of Arras, northern France, on August 21, 2015. Photo: Stringer/AFP/Getty Images

On the train, Skarlatos, a 22-year-old specialist in the National Guard from Roseburg, Oregon, was on a monthlong vacation with his friends Stone and Sadler after returning from a deployment in Afghanistan. After hearing the gunfire and seeing a train employee run down the aisle of their car followed by the shooter, Skarlatos looked at Stone, shouted, “Let’s go, go!” and they then rushed the man. In a Skype interview today with the Times, Skarlatos said, “I mean, adrenaline mostly just takes over. I didn’t realize, or fully comprehend, what was going on,” adding, “What happened and what we did, it just feels unreal. It felt like a dream, or a movie.”

Spencer Stone as he leaves the hospital of Lesquin, northern France on August 22, 2015. Photo: Philippe Huguen/AFP/Getty Images

Twenty-three-year-old Airman First Class Spencer Stone, from Carmichael, California, is not only a big “powerfully-built” guy, but a martial arts enthusiast. Of the Americans, he was the first to jump up, unarmed, and rush the shooter. Said Skarlatos, “Spencer ran a good ten meters to get to the guy, and we didn’t know that his gun wasn’t working or anything like that. Spencer just ran anyway, and if anybody would have gotten shot it would have been Spencer for sure.” When Stone reached the gunman, he grabbed the man by the neck. The gunman then fought back with his knife, cutting Stone’s neck, hand, and nearly slicing off his thumb, though Stone did not let go of the shooter’s neck. Anthony Sadler called Stone “the real hero” of the ordeal, especially when considering the injuries he received. 

As the men converged on the shooter, he continued to fight back vigorously, but Skarlatos was able to get the shooter’s Luger pistol away from him. Then, after one of the train conductors grabbed the gunman’s arm, the National Guardsman picked up the AK-47, which had fallen to the floor, and started “muzzle-thumping” the shooter in the head. Sadler, a senior at Sacramento State University, and Chris Norman, the Briton, were also trying to help subdue the gunman at this point.

Chris Norman speaks to the press on August 22, 2015 in front of the police station of Arras, northern France. Photo: Philippe Huguen/AFP/Getty Images

Norman, a consultant who works with African entrepreneurs, had originally planned on hiding until he heard the three Americans rushing the shooter, at which point he joined the effort himself. He said, “My thought was, I’m probably going to die anyway, so let’s go. Once you start moving, you’re not afraid anymore.”

According to the Times, eventually the gunman passed out as a result of Stone’s chokehold, which he never relinquished. Norman noted that Stone was “a very strong guy.” Sadler and Norman then tied the gunman up, and Stone, despite his own injuries, went to aid the passenger (reported to be a French and American dual citizen) who had been wounded by the gunfire when the confrontation began. Here’s a video a passenger took of the immediate aftermath (the shirtless man is Stone):

Sadler said Stone saved the man’s life by applying pressure to his neck wound. It is not yet clear if this is the same man who initially tried to subdue the gunman near the bathroom. After the train was diverted to the city of Arras, the passenger and Stone were taken to a nearby hospital. Stone was treated and subsequently released. The other man is expected to recover. Only one other passenger, a French actor, was injured in the incident after cutting his hand while triggering the train’s emergency alarm.

An injured man is carried away on a stretcher from the train station of Arras, northern France, after being shot when a gunman opened fire on a train traveling from Amsterdam to Paris. Photo: Stringer/AFP/Getty Images

As it turns out, after Skarlatos had picked up the gunman’s AK-47 and started patrolling the train to look for more shooters, he discovered that the gun had malfunctioned and the gunman had not known how to fix the weapon. In addition, the gunman hadn’t been able to load the Luger handgun properly, Skarlatos found, so he had only been able to fire one shot with it. Said Skarlatos, “If that guy’s weapon had been functioning properly, I don’t even want to think about how it would have went.”

The gunman was arrested and is being interrogated by French counter-terrorism authorities, despite the fact that the act has not yet been officially labeled an act of terrorism, though that’s what authorities suspect, and both the U.S. and French governments are cooperating in the investigation.

International praise for the heroes has been steady. According to a spokesman, President Obama called the three Americans “to commend and congratulate them for their courage and quick action.” Apparently some in France are already calling for the men to receive the Legion of Honor as well, and French president François Hollande has invited them for a meeting at Élysée Palace. Meanwhile, Skarlatos’s father told CNN affiliate KVAL, “I’m so proud of [my son]. I mean, I’m in awe. He inspires me.”

Commented Sadler about the experience, “I’m just a college student, it’s my last year in college. I came to see my friends on my first trip in Europe, and we stopped a terrorist; it’s kind of crazy.”

The Americans Who Foiled the Train Gunman