'The 15:17 to Paris': how three ordinary young men became instant heroes

There's something wonderfully old-fashioned and inspiring about this true story of three regular guys who rose to the occasion and bravely saved an entire train from a terrorist bent on destruction.

The 15:17 to Paris: The True Story of a Terrorist, a Train, and Three American Heroes: By Anthony Sadler, Alek Skarlatos, Spencer Stone, Jeffrey E. Stern ) PublicAffairs 256 pp.

When the story broke, it sounded like the script from a Hollywood action film: Three young American Marines had overpowered a heavily armed man just as he was about to open fire on a crowded train shortly after it left Brussels, Belgium. They subdued the terrorist and, although one other passenger was seriously injured, there were no fatalities.  Europeans believed that the young men had prevented a bloodbath.  President Obama called to congratulate them and French President Hollande awarded them the Legion of Honor. They were given a heroes’ welcome when they returned to the United States.

And, as sometimes, happens, the initial story was pretty much correct.  A few of the details were inaccurate – one of the young men was in the Oregon National Guard, one was in the Air Force and one was a college student – but the basic story line was correct. 

How they happened to find themselves on the train, what they did to subdue the terrorist and how that brief, violent encounter changed their lives is the subject of The 15:17 to Paris, a captivating book written by the three men along with Jeffrey Stern.  It’s an exciting and gripping tale. 

The story begins when Anthony Sadler, Alek Skarlatos, and Spencer Stone meet in a Christian middle school.  None were outstanding students and two of the three were largely raised by single mothers.  They never got into trouble but neither did they particularly distinguish themselves. 

After high school – like millions of other young Americans – they drifted a little before starting out in different directions. Eventually, Alek found himself in Afghanistan with the Guard, Spencer was in the Azores with the Air Force, and Anthony was studying at Sacramento State. The three agreed to meet in Europe for a vacation with only a vague itinerary.  Anthony and Spencer met in Rome and visited Venice, Munich, and Berlin before joining up with Alek in Amsterdam.  After a stop in Brussels, they boarded a train for Paris.  It was somewhat surprising that they were going to Paris – several of the young Americans they met on their European sojourn told them to skip the City of Light in favor of Spain. 

The book also follows another young man, Ayoub El-Khazzani, whose life takes a distinctly different path. Born in Morocco, he grew up “in something of a Moorish paradise.”  But his family was poor and his father was forced to live in Spain to earn a living.  He later joined his father and began selling drugs because “there just wasn’t much to do for money.”  Eventually, he began to seek meaning in religion and found himself living with his sister in a crowded Muslim neighborhood in Brussels.  He was on the path to radicalization and, ultimately, violence.   

These four men came together on August 21, 2015.  El-Khazzani boarded the train carrying a Draco AK-47 assault rifle, a 9mm Luger semiautomatic pistol, a blade from a box cutter, a hammer, gasoline, and a backpack with enough ammunition to kill everyone on board.  Shortly after leaving the station, he emerged from a first class lavatory and shot a passenger.  The young Americans immediately recognized what was happening and charged the shooter.  The terrorist tried to shoot them but his AK-47 jammed and, after a brief and very violent struggle, they subdued him.

Aside from their bravery, the Americans had skills and talents that were well suited for the emergency.  Spencer, for example, had learned jujitsu which proved very useful in disarming the attacker.  Moreover, he was an Emergency Medical Technician which enabled him to administer lifesaving first aid to save the life of the seriously wounded train passenger.  Alek knew firearms well and was able to neutralize the weapons once they wrestled them from the terrorist.  But, ultimately, it is the sheer courage and breathtaking confidence of the heroes that overwhelms the reader.  (“I’m sorry, bud,” Spencer says as he forcefully stabilizes the passenger with serious bleeding from a neck wound, “If I move, you die.”)

After being celebrated in Europe and in the United States, the men moved on with their lives.  To say the least, they were utterly different after enduring the weeks of the hothouse publicity that always follows great accomplishments.  Alek, for example, to the amazement of his friends, found himself on “Dancing with the Stars” where he reached the finals and decided to pursue a career in Hollywood. 

The book is a real-life thriller and, even though the reader knows how the story will end, it is a fast-paced and compelling read. Stern, the primary author, undertook significant background research and this informs the text and gives this book more depth than many similar volumes.  Unfortunately, the attack on the train and the effort to subdue the gunman is broken into several smaller sections that are scattered through the book.  This means that the narrative thrust of the central incident is harder to follow than it should be.  Still, it’s a terrific story. 

Throughout the book, the reader will be struck repeatedly by the ordinariness of the three Americans.  There was nothing in their past that suggested they would rise to the occasion so dramatically and successfully when needed. Their actions seem to prove the old adage that heroes are almost always ordinary people who, when confronted with great challenges, respond in an extraordinary fashion.  How wonderful to be reminded that all of us have such a capacity. 


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