The bottom line: There is no way to know how many lives were saved when two men from Sacramento and a third from Oregon thwarted a terror attack aboard a crowded high-speed train not long after it had pulled away from Brussels, bound for Paris.
The numbers do not add up to a happy ending, bar the actions of the men, who subdued a 26-year-old wielding two guns, a box cutter and nine clips of ammo before he could really begin his attack.
More than 550 people were aboard the train, and authorities fear the attacker, thought to have a terror watch list dossier and Islamic State sympathies, planned to move from the back of the train to the front.
In initial interviews, the suspect, who’s been identified by fingerprints as Ayoub El-khazzani, allegedly has told French investigators that his intent was to rob the people on the train and that he’d found his weapons in a Brussels park. But news reports also say he had recently been in Syria.
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In any case, the actions of U.S. Airman First Class Spencer Stone, of Sacramento, Oregon National Guard Spc. Alek Skarlatos, and Anthony Sadler, a Sacramento State University student described as a longtime friend of Stone’s, meant there was no worst case scenario.
“The attacker looked determined,” the French actor Jean-Hugues Anglade, who was on the train and said to be only a short distance from the attacker, told the French publication Paris Match. “I thought we were all going to die . . . We were prisoners on this fast moving train. There was no way out. We were all trapped.”
France, Belgium, in fact much of Europe has been on high alert this year, since the Hebdo attacks, expecting an assault such as the one that nearly played out at about 6 p.m. Friday while the train was near the Belgium-France border.
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.
The initial news reports said the Americans were first alerted to a possible threat when they heard the sound of an AK-47 being loaded in a locked bathroom on their train car. It’s a sound Skarlatos would know, having just returned from a tour of duty in Afghanistan.
But those reports appear now to have been inaccurate. Instead, 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 Bernard 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 was quoted as saying.
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 Britain’s 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.”
“I didn’t even have time to think,” Skarlatos said. “Even now, looking back at what we did, it feels like a dream.”
“If that guy’s weapons had been functioning properly, I wouldn’t even want to think about how it would have went,” he said.
U.S. European Command Commander Air Force Gen. Philip M. Breedlove on Saturday called the three Americans “heroes” for their actions.
“These men are heroes,” he 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.”
The statement noted that Stone was being treated in France, and that his injuries were not life threatening.
Breedlove was far from the only person praising their bravery. British Prime Minister David Cameron noted “the extraordinary courage of the passengers who intervened and helped disarm the gunman.”
French Interior Minister Cazeneuve called the three Americans “particularly courageous” in the face of “barbaric violence.”
“Without their sangfroid, we could have been confronted with a terrible drama,” he said.
The mayor of the town to which the train was taken after the attack even awarded the men special medals for their bravery.