Train heroes: ‘In times of terror ... do something’

Henry Chu
Los Angeles Times

Paris — “He seemed like he was ready to fight to the end. So were we.”

Spencer Stone, the U.S. serviceman who was the first American to tackle a gunman aboard a Paris-bound train, spoke publicly Sunday for the first time since Friday’s attack and described a fierce struggle that neutralized the shooter. Nobody died, but the attack hurt Stone — who needed surgery for injuries including a nearly severed thumb — and a French-American dual national who was hit by chance by gunfire.

Spencer Stone, left, and Anthony Sadler look on as Alek Skarlatos speaks Sunday at a press conference at the U.S. embassy in Paris.

After being awakened by the sound of a gunshot in their railway carriage Friday afternoon, Stone and his friends, Alek Skarlatos and Anthony Sadler, looked up and saw an assailant at the end of the car holding an AK-47.

“It looked like it was jammed or it wasn’t working, and he was trying to charge the weapon,” Stone, a U.S. airman from Carmichael, Calif., told reporters gathered at the U.S. embassy in Paris. “Alek just hit me on the shoulder and said, ‘Let’s go.’ ”

The two childhood friends, with Sadler not far behind, ran down the length of the carriage and tackled the shirtless gunman. Stone locked him in a chokehold while Skarlatos snatched his gun away.

“It seemed like he kept pulling more weapons left and right–– pulled out a handgun, Alek took that; took out a box cutter, started jabbing at me with that. We let go,” Stone said. “All three of us started punching him while he was in the middle of us. I was able to grab him again and choke him unconscious while Alek was hitting in the head with the pistol or rifle.”

With the help of a British businessman, the Americans hogtied the attacker with a necktie. But Stone, trained as a paramedic, noticed a nearby passenger who had apparently been hit by a bullet and was bleeding profusely from the neck.

Ignoring his own injuries, including the slashed thumb, Stone found the wound and stanched the flow.

“I just stuck two of my fingers in the hole, found what I thought to be the artery, pushed down and the bleeding stopped, and so I just said, ‘Thank God,’ ” he said.

President lauds servicemen

The three friends have been called heroes by President Barack Obama, who telephoned them Saturday, and by French President Francois Hollande.

But they struck a humble note at Sunday’s news conference, thanking the French authorities who cared for them after the attack and also crediting a Frenchman who apparently was the first person to confront the assailant when the gunman emerged from a washroom.

“I feel like he deserves a lot of the credit because if it wasn’t for him, maybe it could’ve been way different,” Stone said.

Chris Norman, a British businessman who helped subdue the gunman, said when he heard a shot and glass breaking his first reaction was to hide. “Then I heard one guy, an American, say ‘go get him,’ and another American say ‘Don’t you do that buddy.’ ”

Norman, who was returning from a business trip in the Netherlands to his home in southern France, said the gunman was small and not visibly strong but “he put up quite a bit of a fight.”

The suspect has been identified as 25-year-old Ayoub El Khazzani, a Moroccan national who French authorities say has had ties with terrorist organizations. A lawyer who was with El Khazzani after his arrest said he denies any terrorist intentions and insists that he was planning to rob the passengers.

“He is dumbfounded that his action has taken on a terrorist dimension,” Sophie David told French television channel BFMTV. “He doesn’t understand why this story has taken on such importance. He took weapons and boarded the train to basically extort money from the passengers.”

Jammed gun a lucky break

Besides their own quick actions, the Americans credited luck with having prevented a bloodbath. After his weapon jammed, the gunman appeared not to know how to get it to work.

“He clearly had no firearms training whatsoever,” Skarlatos said. “If he knew what was he doing, or even just got lucky and did the right thing, he would’ve been able to operate through all eight of those magazines, and we would’ve all been in trouble and probably wouldn’t be here today, along with a lot of other people.”

David, the lawyer, said her former client said the gun jammed and that he did not fire a single shot.

“When I told him people had been injured, he almost fell off his chair. As far as he was concerned, there were no shots fired. The Kalashnikov didn’t work,” David said on Sunday.

David said the arrested man claimed to have found the AK-47 in a suitcase in Brussels’ Parc de Midi near the station where he boarded the train.

She was El Khazzani’s lawyer during his first interrogation in Arras, the northern French town where he was arrested. She is no longer representing him since he was moved for questioning to France’s anti-terrorist headquarters on the outskirts of Paris.

French Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve said Saturday that El Khazzani’s name appeared on security alert lists in three countries — Belgium, France and Spain — because of his alleged links to radical Islamic organizations. French media reported that, after being alerted by their Spanish counterparts, French authorities classified El Khazzani as a Grade 3 security threat in France, on a 16-point scale where 1 is most dangerous and 16 the least.

Flight triggers suspicions

German intelligence services say El Khazzani appeared on their radar in May this year when he took a plane from Berlin to Istanbul, the Turkish capital. Most jihadis traveling to join Islamic State in Syria travel through Turkey. Spanish security services also insist that El Khazzani returned from Syria to France, but there appear to be discrepancies between the French and Spanish intelligence services’ accounts of his movements.

At the U.S. Embassy news conference, the three Americans said they had been napping when the gunman appeared. “The guy had a lot of ammo and his intentions were pretty clear,” Skarlatos said.

Stone added he had not thought twice about confronting the gunman. “In the beginning it was gut instinct, survival. It wasn’t a conscious decision. There wasn’t much thinking going on my end, anyway. ... Our aim was to survive ... and for everyone else on that train to make it.”

Stone underwent surgery to have his thumb reattached and was released from the hospital Saturday evening.

The men’s adventures are not over yet: On Monday, Hollande will receive and recognize them at the Elysee Palace.

“I’m still waiting to wake up,” Sadler said. “This all just seems like a movie scene or something.”

He said he hoped others would draw a lesson from what happened.

“Hiding or sitting back is not going to accomplish anything, and the gunman would’ve been successful if my friend Spencer had not gotten up,” Sadler said. “So I just want that lesson to be learned going forward, in times of terror like that, to please do something. Don’t just stand by and watch.”

Associated Press contributed.