BERLIN – The bottom line: There is no way to know how many lives were saved when three young Americans — two in the armed services and one a college student — thwarted a suspected terror attack aboard a crowded high-speed train not long after it had pulled away from Brussels, bound for Paris.
But their quick actions subdued a heavily armed man as he emerged shooting from a bathroom aboard a train packed with 550 passengers. Authorities believe the 26-year-old attacker, thought to have a terror watch list dossier and Islamic State sympathies, planned what could have been another mass killing. He was wielding two guns, a box cutter and nine clips of ammo.
As his weapon apparently misfired, the three Americans friends traveling together in Europe — U.S. Airman First Class Spencer Stone of Sacramento, Oregon National Guard Spc. Alek Skarlatos and Anthony Sadler, a Sacramento State University student — wrestled the attacker to the floor of a train car. At least one passenger was shot and Stone was cut in the struggle but was treated in France for injuries that were not life threatening.
“I didn’t even have time to think,” Skarlatos told Britain’s Sky News. “Even now, looking back at what we did, it feels like a dream.”
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“If that guy’s weapons had been functioning properly, I wouldn’t even want to think about how it would have went,” said Skarlatos, who has just returned from a tour of duty in Afghanistan.
The French actor Jean-Hugues Anglade, who was aboard, witnessed a life-and-death drams that played out like a scene from a movie. “I thought we were all going to die,’’ he told the French publication Paris Match. “We were prisoners on this fast moving train. There was no way out. We were all trapped.”
French Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve called the three Americans “particularly courageous” in the face of “barbaric violence.” British Prime Minister David Cameron also noted “the extraordinary courage of the passengers who intervened and helped disarm the gunman.”
U.S. European Command Commander Air Force Gen. Philip M. Breedlove on Saturday called the three Americans “heroes” for their actions.
“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,’’ he said. “We are extremely proud of their efforts and now are praying for our injured airman to have a speedy recovery.”
France, Belgium and much of Europe has been on high alert this year since the terrorist attacks on the offices of the newsweekly Charlie Hebdo in Paris in January, which left 17 victims and three attackers dead.
The latest assault played out at about 6 p.m. Friday while the train was near the Belgium-France border. In initial interviews, the suspect, identified by fingerprints as Ayoub El-khazzani, allegedly has told French investigators that his intent was to only rob the people on the train and that he’d found his weapons in a Brussels park. Some media reported he was from Moroco but has also traveled to Syria.
Piecing together the story from police and military statements, from the words of national leaders, from press reports from France, Germany, Belgium and the United Kingdom, and video interviews with the Americans it becomes clear that the difference between horror and heroism came down to 15 seconds, an assault rifle that may have misfired and three friends who happened to be on a European vacation together.
Authorities believe the gunman, naked from the waist up, emerged from the bathroom, weapon at the ready, and was first confronted by a French passenger, whose efforts to subdue the gunmen failed. According to the French Interior Minister Cazeneuve, the gunman got off several shots.
An American aboard the train, Christina Cathleen Coons, later told the French newspaper Le Monde that one passenger had been shot in the neck.
“There was blood everywhere,” she said.
The gunman continued to fire, but all a French passenger heard after the initial shots was “click, click, click” as the gunman’s assault rifle apparently jammed. For a moment, the French passenger said, he thought the weapon was a toy.
That was when Stone, Skarlatos and Sadler swang into action. As Skarlatos told it in a video interview with Sky News, he looked at Stone and said, “Spencer, go.”
“We see a man enter the car with the AK-47,” Sadler recalled in a separate interview with Sky News. “As he’s beginning to cock it, to shoot it, my friend Alek yelled at Spencer to go, go get him.”
The airman went, running down the train aisle as people screamed in panic, and was the first to reach the suspect. Skarlatos was close behind, as was Sadler. Stone put the attacker in a headlock. Skarlatos ripped away the handgun and threw it, then went for the AK-47, which was at the gunman’s feet, and started “muzzle-thumping him in the head with it.”
“Everybody just started beating on the guy while Spencer held the choke-hold until he went unconscious,” Skarlatos said.
The capture was not bloodless. As Stone tackled the gunman, the assailant flailed at him with a box cutter, cutting Stone’s thumb deeply and wounding him on the neck as well.
A Briton identified as Chris Norman joined the fray, helping to hold the suspect while he was being tied up. In a video of the aftermath of the attack, the suspect can be seen, his hands and feet bound behind his back, his face to the floor of the train.
Witnesses said at that point Stone tried to stop the bleeding of the man who had been shot in the neck, and Skarlatos looked to make sure there wasn’t another attacker on the train, then set about gathering and clearing the weapons. He said as he did this, he realized the attacker had pulled the trigger on the AK-47, but that it had jammed and he apparently had not known how to clear it.
He also said that the attacker had either removed the clip from the handgun, or it came out in the struggle, meaning there was only the one bullet that fired.
“The gun didn’t go off, luckily, and he didn’t know how to fix it, which was also lucky,” Skarlatos said. As for the handgun, Skarlatos concluded, “He either dropped it accidentally or didn’t load it properly.”
President Barack Obama, who was briefed about the incident, also issued a statement of praise.
“The President expressed his profound gratitude for the courage and quick thinking of several passengers, including U.S. service members, who selflessly subdued the attacker. 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,” the statement said.