Three quick-thinking Americans – two of them US servicemen – are being hailed as heroes for preventing an apparent terrorist attack which could have resulted in many causalities aboard a train traveling from Amsterdam to Paris.
The three friends, who were on holiday together in Europe, are US Air Force Airman 1st Class Spencer Stone of Carmichael, California, Alek Skarlatos, an Army National Guardsman from Roseburg, Oregon, and Anthony Sadler, a senior at Sacramento State University. Mr. Skarlatos had recently returned from Afghanistan. Mr. Stone is based in the Azores.
As recounted by the three Americans, other eyewitnesses, and French officials, here’s how a few minutes of confusion and violence played out Friday as the high-speed passenger train traveled through Belgium:
A man emerged from a restroom, shirtless and carrying an assault rifle, a handgun, and a knife. One passenger was shot. Several passengers received knife wounds as the attacker moved through the train, at which point the Americans intervened, tackling the suspect, beating him unconscious, and tying him up. A British man, Chris Norman, jumped in to help subdue the attacker.
"As he was cocking [the rifle] to shoot it, Alek just yells, 'Spencer, go!' And Spencer runs down the aisle," Mr. Sadler told reporters. "Spencer makes first contact, he tackles the guy, Alek wrestles the gun away from him, and the gunman pulls out a box cutter and slices Spencer a few times. And the three of us beat him until he was unconscious."
Stone then helped another passenger who had been wounded in the throat, stopping his bleeding until paramedics came, Sadler said. Mr. Stone is being treated for what are described as non-life-threatening injuries.
"I'm just a college student,” Sadler told reporters. “I came to see my friends for my first trip to Europe and we stop a terrorist. It's kind of crazy."
"He has a great love for his friends, and there's no way he would stand on the sidelines and watch them get attacked," his father, Anthony Sadler Sr., told The Los Angeles Times Saturday morning. "I'm thanking God they were not seriously injured."
French Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve said the Americans "were particularly courageous and showed great bravery in very difficult circumstances," and that "without their sangfroid we could have been confronted with a terrible drama."
Frederic Leturque, the mayor of Arras, France, presented medals to the three Americans and Mr. Norman.
"I wanted them to feel recognition not only from the city but also from French people in general and from all people who are against terrorism," Mayor Leturque said. "We avoided the worst, but the situation was tough, for them and for everyone.”
“Echoing the statements of French authorities, the president expressed his profound gratitude for the courage and quick thinking of several passengers, including US service members, who selflessly subdued the attacker,” the White House said in a statement Friday night. “While the investigation into the attack is in its early stages, it is clear that their heroic actions may have prevented a far worse tragedy. We will remain in close contact with French authorities as the investigation proceeds.”
As the investigation continues, the suspect has been tentatively identified as a 26-year-old Moroccan flagged by Spanish authorities last year for links to Islamic radical movements. An official linked to Spain's anti-terrorism unit said the suspect lived in Spain until 2014, then moved to France, travelled to Syria, and then returned to France, according to the Associated Press.
France has been on high security alert since Islamist militants killed 17 people in and around Paris earlier this year, Reuters reports. Four hostages were killed and four others were critically wounded as a result of a hostage standoff in a kosher supermarket in eastern Paris in January.
Stone, Sadler, and Skarlatos were expected to be personally thanked by French President French President François Hollande at the Elysee palace on Saturday. In a phone call, President Hollande "thanked them for their exceptional courage and their efficiency to prevent a tragedy," according to a statement from his office.
"These men are heroes,” Air Force Gen. Philip M. Breedlove, head of the US European Command in Stuttgart, Germany, said in a statement. “Actions like this clearly illustrate the courage and commitment our young men and women have all the time, whether they are on duty or on leave. We are extremely proud of their efforts and now are praying for our injured airman to have a speedy recovery."