They were childhood pals on a European jaunt, three young Americans who began the day as tourists and ended it as heroes praised by the presidents of two countries.
As their high-speed train whizzed through the countryside near the Belgian and French border Friday afternoon, Spencer Stone, Alek Skarlatos and Anthony Sadler were startled by the sound of a gunshot, then by the sight of a train 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. For friends and family, their courageous instincts came as no surprise.
They grew 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. 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 Guard. He reenlisted last month for two more years 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 University 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, said Sadler’s father, Anthony.
They almost didn’t get on the Paris-bound train because they were considering staying another day in Amsterdam, Skarlatos’ brother, Solon, said.
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 named him as Ayoub el Khazani and said his fingerprints matched a set taken by Spanish police during a major drug-trafficking investigation in 2013.
Authorities are not ruling out a political or ideological motive for the attack Friday afternoon on the Thalys train.
News reports say El Khazani has denied any links to terrorist groups and has claimed that 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 shown 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 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.”
A passenger described as a French American was reported to be in a hospital for treatment of a gunshot wound suffered in the attack. Stone was also expected to undergo surgery for his injuries, which are not life-threatening.
Anti-terrorism officials say El Khazani is on an “S-list” — a security watch list — in France as well as in Spain, where he was living in 2014, and in Belgium, where he turned up in 2015. Suspects on the list are noted for their “links with terrorist organizations,” but not all are under 24-hour surveillance.
French Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve said the man’s name had been communicated to France’s intelligence services last year. There were unconfirmed reports that the man had traveled to Syria, once again raising the fear of Islamic State militants returning to Europe to carry out terrorist attacks.
Intelligence sources told the newspaper Le Monde that the suspect — who was transferred Saturday morning from Arras in northern France to the anti-terrorist brigade headquarters at Levallois-Perret just outside Paris — initially refused to answer questions except to give his name, age and nationality.
The attack further rattled France, already on edge since the January massacre in Paris by radical Muslim terrorists who killed more than a dozen people at the office of satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo and at a kosher market. In June, an assailant also suspected of Islamic extremism beheaded his boss and attacked a chemical factory near the city of Lyon.
But the incident aboard the Thalys train also elicited praise and admiration for the passengers who ignored their own safety to secure the safety of others.
President Obama telephoned the three young Americans on Saturday afternoon “to commend and congratulate them for their courage and quick action aboard their Paris-bound train last night,” Deputy Press Secretary Eric Schultz said. “The president expressed his gratitude to these three individuals for their heroic actions forestalling an even greater tragedy.”
French President Francois Hollande also praised the heroism of those on the train, and is planning to receive Stone, Skarlatos and Sadler at the Elysee Palace on Monday.
Fellow passenger Norman, who had been in the Netherlands for business, also praised the three men.
“Without them, we probably wouldn’t be here,” he said during a televised news conference from Arras.
Special correspondent Willsher reported from Paris and Times staff writers Megerian from Sacramento and Torres from Los Angeles. Times staff writers Henry Chu in London, W.J. Hennigan in Washington and Thomas Curwen, Jack Leonard and Gale Holland in Los Angeles contributed to this report.
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