When Emanuel Skarlatos, a 65-year-old Greek immigrant who came to the U.S. at the age of four, picked up the phone Friday night in Oregon, it was his son Alek, 23, calling from a small town in northern France with a wild story about being onboard a high-speed train heading to Paris with a terrorist.
Little did Skarlatos know that his son and two childhood friends, who are "so close they are basically brothers," had in fact foiled a terrorist attack on the train by a 26-year-old Moroccan and radical Islamist identified as Ayoub El Qahzzani who is known to at least three European intelligence agencies and who the European Strategic Intelligence and Security Centre said is probably allied with ISIS.
The three young American men and a British passenger acted on their own as the train crew reportedly locked themselves away, ignoring the terrified cries for help from passengers on the Friday evening train from Amsterdam to Paris. French actor Jean-Hugues Anglade told Paris Match that the train agents used a special key to barricade themselves in one of the train cars, leaving passengers to fend for themselves.
Anglade was so furious that he gave a second interview to Le Figaro Saturday saying he and his fellow passengers were "totally abandoned" by the train crew while the Americans tackled the shooter.
Alek, 23, a National Guardsman who just returned from deployment in Afghanistan last month, told his astonished dad that he and his childhood friend, U.S. Air Force serviceman Spencer Stone, with the help of friend Anthony Sadler, had taken down a terrorist wielding a Kalashnikov rifle, a handgun, a boxcutter and a backpack full of ammo on the train.
Incredible video footage of the incident, apparently taken from Sadler's phone, shows the suspect hogtied on his stomach, moaning, along with Stone's bloody head, knifed in the attack. The windows around them are blood-stained.
"I got the facts about what happened from Alek," Skarlatos told the Daily Beast Saturday. "They're snoozing on the train and they hear someone reloading an AK-47. They made a split-second decision to bumrush him. Spencer went first because he's the biggest guy and only one person could fit down the aisle at a time. He tackled the guy and Alek jumped him second. The guy took out a boxcutter and began slicing Spencer. Alek grabbed his Kalashnikov and beat him unconscious with the butt end of it. Then their other friend Anthony helped hogtie the guy up and Alek went through the train with the AK-47 checking for other terrorists."
It wasn't until after Alek hung up and returned to the hotel room in Arras, France where he's been told to stay during the initial investigation of the incident that Skarlatos began watching the news and "it all really began to sink in," said his father.
"It dawned on me that they had just saved some lives," said Emanuel Skarlatos. "The (attacker) had 250 rounds of ammunition on him. It could have been very serious."
Anglade, who was with his two young children, said it was worse than that. Though French train officials defended the train staff by saying that some agents locked themselves in a luggage compartment along with some passengers who may have been grazed by bullets, Anglade was scathing in his criticism of how the train crew, he said, left him and the other passengers to die.
"We heard the guys yelling in English, he's gonna shoot, he's got a Kalashnikov!" Anglade said. "The staff members ran and locked themselves in. We were in the last car. The gunman was coming toward us, determined. I thought it was the end. He was going to kill us. We shouted for the staff to help us, to let us in to their (locked) car. Radio silence. It was inhuman, the terrible abandonment."
Though Stone and a dual French-American man were injured in the attempted attack, no one was killed and the trio of Americans and Norman are being hailed as "heroes," "brave" and "courageous" by French officials and politicians ranging from France's Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve to Marine Le Pen of the right-wing National Front.
"They showed great bravery in terrible circumstances," Cazeneuve told French reporters.
Stone was released from a local hospital Saturday night and the three Americans along with Norman will meet with French President Francois Hollande at the Elysee Palace Monday to be officially recognized for their bravery.
Alek's stepmother Karen Skarlatos broke down on the phone with the Daily Beast, apologizing and saying she and her husband had not slept since hearing the news.
"Alek and Spencer lived next door to each other when they were kids and they both knew Anthony a long time as well," Mrs. Skarlatos said. "There's no doubt in my mind they were equipped and prepared for this by God."
She said that all three young American men arrived in Amsterdam separately. Alek, of Roseburg, Ore., came from Germany where he had been traveling, Spencer from where he is stationed in the Azores and Anthony, a senior at Sacramento State University, flew in from from the U.S. Their plan was to "catch a train to Paris and piddle around France," she said.
"This could have been so much worse," Mrs. Skarlatos said. "The phone call we could have gotten might have been every parent's nightmare. We are touched beyond belief at the outpouring of love and concern. Alek has lived at home with us since he got back from Afghanistan in July. I was telling his dad maybe he should think about moving out but now I just want him to come home and never leave."
Alek Skarlatos, in a televised press conference Saturday, said they were all "lucky no one got killed, especially Spencer."
"If anyone would have gotten shot it would have been Spencer for sure," Alek said. "He had to run ten meters to get to the guy and we didn't know if he was going to shoot him."
But Norman said, "Had Alek not said, Go get him, I don't know if any of us would have reacted. We were all kind of sleeping."
Sadler said they all heard the sound of the gun and when Alek told Spencer to go, "Spencer just went, no hesitation whatsoever."
The Associated Press reported that 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. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to be identified by name.
Spanish intelligence first identified him as a radical Islamist, El Pais reported Saturday morning. According to the Telegraph, they told their counterparts in Paris when Qahzzani moved to France. Then the French alerted Belgium.
A Facebook page in his name contained postings in Arabic describing music as Satanic and justifying Isil's burning to death of Moaz al-Kasasbeh, the Jordanian pilot shot down while flying coalition air raids over Syria, the Telegraph reported.