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US soldiers find themselves at centre of French train drama

Anthony Sadler, Alek Skarlatos and Briton Chris Norman (L to R) received medals for bravery from the French town of Arras.
6 min

Holidaying US servicemen found themselves at the centre of an attempted mass shooting on Friday when they overpowered a gunman armed with a Kalashnikov who opened fire on a train from Amsterdam to Paris.


Air Force serviceman Spencer Stone and National Guardsman Alek Skarlatos were travelling with their friend Anthony Sadler, a student at Sacramento State University, when a man entered Thalys train carriage No. 12 armed with an assault rifle and a pistol.

"We heard a gunshot, and we heard glass breaking behind us, and saw a train employee sprint past us down the aisle," Sadler told The Associated Press.

It soon became clear that the fleeing train employee was followed by a gunman carrying an automatic rifle.

"I didn't realise what was happening until I saw a guard run past. I looked back and saw a guy enter with a Kalashnikov. My friends and I got down and then I said, 'Let's get him'," said Skarlatos, 22, who returned from service in Afghanistan in July.

As the gunman entered the compartment and began trying to cock his weapon, Sadler’s two friends sprung into action.

"As he was cocking it to shoot it, Alek just yells, 'Spencer, go!' And Spencer runs down the aisle," Sadler said. "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."

"Everything happened very fast," Sadler told the media.

In an interview with Britain’s Sky News, Skarlatos said Stone first got the man in a headlock so that he could be disarmed.

"Spencer got to the guy first, grabbed the guy by the neck and I grabbed the handgun, got the handgun away from the guy and threw it. Then I grabbed the AK (-47 assault rifle), which was at his feet, and started muzzle-thumping him in the head with it."

He said that Stone ran some 10 metres (32 feet) to get to the gunman.

"We didn't know if his gun wasn't working or anything like that. Spencer just ran anyway and if anyone had gotten shot, it would have been Spencer, and we're just very lucky that nobody got killed," Skarlatos added.

Spencer Stone waves as he leaves the hospital in Lille, northern France, after being treated for an injured hand.  © AFP / Philippe Huguen
Spencer Stone waves as he leaves the hospital in Lille, northern France, after being treated for an injured hand. © AFP / Philippe Huguen

Stone then helped another passenger who had been wounded in the throat and was quickly losing blood, Sadler said.

Stone underwent treatment on his injured hand but was seen leaving hospital Saturday evening. He walked out, waved quickly and slipped into a black sedan with diplomatic license plates. It was not immediately clear where he was headed.

'I'm just a college student'

Other passengers also rushed to help. British national Chris Norman, 62, helped tie the gunman up.

French Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve said on Saturday that a French traveller “tried to overpower” the suspect before he began firing but was unsuccessful.

Mobile phone footage from inside the train shows the suspect, a skinny man wearing white trousers and no shirt, flattened on the floor of the train with his hands and feet tied behind his back. A Kalashnikov is seen leaning against a seat and blood is visible on a window.

"He (the gunman) didn't say anything. He was just telling us to give back his gun," Sadler said. "'Give me back my gun! Give me back my gun!' But we just carried on beating him up and immobilised him and that was it."

"I'm just a college student," he said. "I came to see my friends for my first trip to Europe and we stop a terrorist. It's kind of crazy."

Skarlatos's stepmother, Karen Skarlatos, spoke with him immediately after the incident. "He sounded fine, but he was intense ̶   he sounded like he had just thwarted a terrorist attack," she told The Associated Press.

"Alek and Spencer, they're big, brave, strong guys and they decided they were going to tackle him. And they did," she told the AP from Oregon. "Spencer got a couple good slices on him. But they were able to subdue him while the train was still moving."

Thalys train attack video from Alex Scarlatos

Sadler said French authorities were to speak with him Saturday in Arras, where police still circulated around the cordoned-off train and train station.

The Pentagon confirmed that "one US military member was injured in the incident”, adding that the injury is not life-threatening.

'Great bravery'

Sadler, Skarlatos and British national Norman, who lives in France, received medals for bravery on Friday from the northern French city of Arras, where the train was diverted.

French President François Hollande's office said in a statement on Saturday that he would be meeting with those involved in the incident at the presidential palace in the coming days to "express France's gratitude".

Speaking in Arras on Friday, Interior Minister Cazeneuve said the Americans "were particularly courageous and showed great bravery in very difficult circumstances", adding that "without their sangfroid, we could have been confronted with a terrible drama".

But he called for caution before jumping to conclusions as to motive.

Hollande said "everything is being done to shed light" on the motives for the shooting.

US President Barack Obama telephoned the three American passengers "to commend and congratulate them for their courage and quick action aboard their Paris-bound train last night," White House spokesman Eric Schultz said Saturday.

"The president expressed his gratitude to these three individuals for their heroic actions forestalling an even greater tragedy," Schultz added.

"The president wished airman Stone a full and speedy recovery, and expressed how proud all Americans are of their extraordinary bravery."

French prosecutors said counter-terrorism investigators had taken over the investigation into why the gunman, a 26-year-old of Moroccan origin, had targeted the train. He is due to be questioned later on Saturday.

Cazeneuve said that if the identity the suspect provided to the authorities is correct, he is a known radical Islamist.

The gunman has been transferred to the Paris region from Arras in northern France where the incident took place. Cazeneuve said under the terms of his arrest the man can be held for four days without being charged.

(FRANCE 24 with AP and AFP)


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