Three heroic American men, two of them unarmed servicemen in civilian clothing, helped overpower a 26-year-old gunman armed with an automatic rifle, handgun, knife and razor blades who brazenly opened fire in a high-speed train traveling from Amsterdam to Paris on Friday evening.
One of the Americans, Alek Skarlatos, is a member of the National Guard, the other, is Spencer Stone, a member of the Air Force. Stone ended up injured in the terrifying and chaotic scene aboard the train as it sped through the Belgian countryside on Friday evening at the height of the tourist season in Europe. Stone is currently being treated at a French hospital for serious wounds inflicted when the attacker slashed him with a blade. The third American is named Anthony Sadler. Twitter erupted with news of the two soldiers shutting down the gunman as more than one person tweeted that it was right out of a real-life “Mission Impossible” movie.
French actor Jean-Hugues Anglade, suffered minor injuries when he broke the glass to sound the alarm. It could have been far worse had it not been for the quick-thinking passengers, French officials said.
“Without their courage this would have surely been a terrible tragedy,” Bernard Cazeneuve, the French interior minister, said Friday.
The two men were near a bathroom when they heard a familiar and frightening sound: the bolt being thrown on a Kalashnikov rifle as someone prepared to fire. After they confronted the suspect, a wild melee broke out on the train and passengers finally helped subdue him.
"Spencer got to the guy first and grabbed the guy by the neck," Skarlatos told Sky News. "I grabbed the handgun, got that away from the guy and threw it. Then I grabbed the AK-47, which was at his feet, and started muzzle-bumping him in the head with it.
"Everybody just started beating the guy while Spencer held the chokehold until he went unconscious."
“I heard a noise and I thought it was an argument between two people,” a passenger identified as Damien told the French newspaper Libération. “I saw a guy run through with a black shirt in the hallway. One man, who was shirtless, was pointing a gun at him. I heard click, click. I thought it was a toy gun. There were a few seconds of face-to-face combat between the two men, and the passenger jumped on him and tackled him to the ground. That guy, he had balls, I didn’t move from where I was standing. I could never do that.”
“This could have been a monumental catastrophe with great loss of life,” a high-ranking Paris police source told The Daily Beast. He said the facts were not in yet but said the passengers were “very lucky” the soldiers were aboard the train.
Anti-terror police are investigating the background of the suspect, who Spanish authorities claim is of Moroccan origin and known to them as a terrorism suspect. He was taken into custody by French police near the town of Arras, France, and the train was evacuated, according to Pierre-Henri Brandet, a spokesman for the French Interior Ministry.
The incident, which occurred around 6 p.m. local time, took place as the train was traveling through southern Belgium, a spokesman for SNCF, the French national rail system said.
A British consultant, Chris Norman, was also injured trying to subdue the attacker. According to an interview Anthony Sadler gave, even after being gravely injured, Stone, "went to go help the other man who was bleeding also. Without his help, he would have died."
French President François Hollande thanked the men on Saturday, and awarded them with medals for their bravery. He also said in a statement that “everything is being done to shed light” on the shooting.
Marine Le Pen, head of France’s right-wing National Front party, said France was now a constant target of “barbaric attacks” and praised the heroism of the two Americans.
“Terrible carnage was avoided thanks to the courageous intervention of these two Americans who fortunately happened to be on board the train,” Le Pen said.
France has been on edge since the Charlie Hebdo and kosher supermarket massacres in January. High-speed trains such as the Thalys are supposed to have heightened security as part of an ongoing nationwide alert, but there are no baggage checks except on the Eurostar that runs beneath the English Channel.
UPDATE 8/22/2015 8:44 a.m. The story was updated with the names of the two Americans, and the news that they were in the Air Force and National Guard, not the Marines.