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Americans who thwarted train attack now international heroes

Americans who thwarted train attack now international heroes
U.S. Ambassador to France Jane Hartley hugs U.S. serviceman Spencer Stone after a press conference at the U.S. embassy in Paris. (Etienne Laurent / EPA)

The three men who thwarted what French officials described as a terrorist attack on a train are winning accolades from top officials around the world.

Gov. Jerry Brown said in a statement that he was "proud of the brave Californians who helped prevent [Friday's] attack in France and saved countless lives."

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President Obama called the three Saturday to offer his thanks.

"The president expressed his gratitude to these three individuals for their heroic actions forestalling an even greater tragedy. The president ...  expressed how proud all Americans are of their extraordinary bravery," a Obama spokesman said.

As their high-speed train whizzed through the French countryside near the Belgian border Friday afternoon, Spencer Stone, Alek Skarlatos and Anthony Sadler were startled by the sound of a gunshot, then by the sight of a railway employee sprinting past them down the aisle.

They saw a man brandishing an automatic rifle and other weapons. A conductor tried but failed to subdue him.

"I looked back," said Skarlatos, who saw the guns. "So me and my friends got down."

Instinct should have told him to stay there. Instead, with a look at Stone and a cry of "Let's go!" Skarlatos and his buddy were on their feet, running toward danger, not away from it.

The gunman tried to fire at them but the guns jammed.

Stone reached the bare-chested attacker first and grabbed him by the neck, while Skarlatos wrested one of the man's guns away from him. The assailant whipped out a box cutter and began slashing at Stone, who didn't release his grip.

Stone suffered a number of cuts, including one that nearly severed his thumb.

Sadler and a British businessman, Chris Norman, joined the fray, pummeling the gunman and helping to hogtie him on the floor of the train.

"It all happened so fast," Sadler said. "We heard the word go, and everyone just got up."

The Americans' quick actions, which they described in media appearances Saturday, averted a potential bloodbath, but for friends and family, their courageous instincts came as no surprise.

They had grown up together in the suburbs of Sacramento. As young boys, Stone and Skarlatos were into sports and paintball and dreamed of careers with the military or law enforcement.

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They watched older brothers go into the California Highway Patrol and the Navy. The three stayed close even after Skarlatos moved to Roseburg, Ore., to live with his father and attend high school. He worked at a Costco and joined the National Guard.

Ending a nine-month deployment at Bagram Airfield in Afghanistan in June, he returned to the U.S., according to the National Guard. He reenlisted last month for two more years in the Guard and is currently assigned as a rifleman. While in Europe, he visited Germany before meeting up with Stone and Sadler in Amsterdam.

Stone, an Air Force paramedic, had been stationed at Lajes Air Base in the Azores, where he worked as a medical technician in pediatrics and with expectant mothers.

Sadler, a senior at Cal State Sacramento, was seeing Europe for the first time.

The three men decided to take the vacation together before Stone was reassigned from Europe at the end of the year, according to Sadler's father, Anthony.

They almost didn't get on the Paris-bound train because they were considering staying another day in Amsterdam, according to Skarlatos' brother, Solon.

Their plans were casual, said Skarlatos' mother, who kept in touch with her son on Facebook.

Authorities identified the gunman as a 25-year-old Moroccan national known by European security officials to have ties to Islamic terrorist organizations. French media identified him as Ayoub El Khazzani and said his fingerprints matched those taken by Spanish police during a major drug-trafficking investigation in 2013.

Authorities are not ruling out a political or ideological motive.

Media reports say El Khazzani has denied any links to terrorist groups and has claimed he found a cache of weapons — a Kalashnikov, nine magazines, an automatic pistol and a box cutter — in a bag in a park in Brussels and had intended to rob passengers on the train.

"He was there to do business. That's for sure," Skarlatos said in an interview on French television.

As Sadler and Norman helped tie up the gunman, Stone — despite his injuries — helped another passenger who had been wounded in the throat, stopping his bleeding until paramedics arrived.

Throughout the brief but terrifying episode, Sadler said, "The gunman never said a word ... except to demand his gun back. 'Give me my gun, give me my gun,' he said.'"

French President Francois Hollande thanked the men Saturday and plans to meet with them in the coming days, according to the BBC.

British Prime Minister David Cameron released a statement citing the "extraordinary courage of the passengers who intervened and helped disarm the gunman."

Closer to home, Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson said in a statement that he was "incredibly proud" of the locals involved in the incident.

Contributing to this report was special correspondent Kim Willsher from Paris and Henry Chu from London.

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