France said a big “merci” to three Americans and a Briton who overpowered a gunman on a high-speed train, giving the four men the country’s highest honor in a ceremony at the presidential palace Monday.
Spencer Stone, 23, Alek Skarlatos, 22, and Anthony Sadler, 23, three friends on a European vacation, and British businessman Chris Norman, 62, were awarded the Legion d’Honneur by French President François Hollande at the Elysée Palace.
The three young Americans, who have been hailed as heroes around the world, looked slightly embarrassed as Hollande pinned the ribboned medals on their polo shirts before embracing them and kissing them on each cheek.
The trio wrestled an AK-47-toting gunman to the floor after he allegedly opened fire on a train from Amsterdam to Paris on Friday afternoon. The bare-chested assailant also had a Luger handgun and a box cutter, which he used to slash Stone’s head and slice his hand, nearly severing his thumb. But Stone and Skarlatos, both stocky American servicemen, and Sadler were able to disarm the attacker and beat him unconscious.
The attacker has been identified as Ayoub El Khazzani, a 25-year-old Moroccan national who is reportedly on security watch lists in four European countries for his alleged links to radical Islamic groups.
Hollande described the attack as a work of “terrorism” and credited the men with averting a bloodbath.
“We are here to honor four men who, thanks to their bravery, managed to save lives. They showed what could be done in terrible circumstances,” Hollande said. “In the name of France, I would like to thank you. The whole world admires your courage, your sangfroid, your responsibility.
“Your heroism should be an example to us all and a source of inspiration,” the French leader said. “Faced with an evil -- and that’s what it was -- called terrorism, there is a good, called humanity.”
Hollande said the gunman had “enough arms and ammunition to provoke a real carnage” on the train.
“And that’s what he would have done if you hadn’t taken every risk, including that to your own lives, and overpowered him,” Hollande told the four men.
Three other train passengers -- a 28-year-old Frenchman who first confronted El Khazzani when he came out of a washroom brandishing his weapons, a 51-year-old French-American who was shot in the throat and is in the hospital, and an off-duty train driver who helped neutralize the gunman -- will also receive the Legion d’Honneur.
On Sunday, Stone, a U.S. airman from Carmichael, Calif., told reporters that he was “in a deep sleep” when a gunshot and the sound of breaking glass awoke him. He and his friends looked up and saw a man holding an AK-47. “Alek just hit me on the shoulder and said, ‘Let’s go.’”
The two childhood friends, with Sadler not far behind, ran down the length of the carriage and tackled the gunman. Stone locked him in a chokehold while Skarlatos snatched his gun away. Once the gunman was knocked out, Norman helped hogtie him with a necktie.
Hollande said that these men “of all nationalities” -- American, British and French -- had “formed a human community ... the best to defeat the worst.”
President Obama telephoned the three Americans on Saturday to praise their heroism.
Stone, a U.S. airman stationed at Lajes Air Base in the Azores, where he worked as a medical technician in pediatrics and with expectant mothers, suffered cuts to his hand, arm and the back of the head. He underwent surgery to reattach his thumb and was released from the hospital Saturday evening. On Monday, his arm remained in a sling as he received the Legion d’Honneur, an award instituted by Napoleon in the 19th century.
Skarlatos, from Roseburg, Ore., returned from Afghanistan in June and reenlisted as a rifleman in the National Guard. Sadler is a senior at Cal State Sacramento and was visiting Europe for the first time.
El Khazzani is still being questioned by anti-terrorist police. According to one of his lawyers, he insists he has no terrorist links and merely wanted to rob passengers on the train.
Security on public transport has been stepped up in Europe following the attack. Trains move thousands of passengers around the continent every day but are mostly not subject to the same kind of security checks and precautions as are found at airports, making them more vulnerable to attack.
France has been on edge since Islamic extremists killed more than a dozen people in January at a Paris magazine office and kosher market.
Willsher is a special correspondent.
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