France honors 3 Americans, Briton for stopping train attack
Updated 8:46 AM ET, Mon August 24, 2015
(CNN)They grew up together, fought off an attacker together and accepted a nation's honor together.
Three days after they pounced and subdued a gunman aboard a packed train, American childhood friends Anthony Sadler, Spencer Stone and Alek Skarlatos got the Legion of Honor --
Fellow British passenger Chris Norman, who helped tackle the gunman, also received the award during Monday's ceremony at the
"By their courage, they saved lives," President François Hollande said. "They gave us an example of what is possible to do in these kinds of situations."
The four stopped a potential massacre Friday aboard the high-speed train headed from
Amsterdam, Netherlands, to Paris.
"Three Americans and one Englishman ... you risked your lives to defend an ideal, the ideal of liberty and freedom," Hollande said.
Another passenger -- a French national who has not gone public -- also confronted the gunman and will be honored at a later date.
Napoleon Bonaparte established the Legion of Honor in 1802 to recognize exceptional leaders and unusual achievements.'He never said a word'
'He never said a word'
The four were in the same train car when gunfire erupted. Shortly afterward, a shirtless man appeared with a gun slung over his shoulder.
"He never said a word," said Sadler, a student at
California State University
"At that time, it was either do something or die."
They charged at the gunman, and a fierce struggle ensued.
"He kept pulling more weapons left and right," Stone said, his arm in a sling from injuries suffered in the struggle. "He seemed like he was ready to fight to the end. So were we."
They punched the suspect, choked him and hit him with his own weapons. They finally restrained him before the train pulled up in
Arras in northern France.
The confrontation left Stone, a U.S. Air Force member who tackled the attacker first, with wounds in the head, hand and neck. He was hospitalized and released.
"It is clear that their heroic actions may have prevented a far worse tragedy," President Barack Obama said.
Inspired to act
"I am happy that no one got hurt," he said. "Spence and Alek are the two guys who we should really thank the most because they were the first ones who actually got up and did it."
When they took action,
Norman jumped in as well.
"That gave me the impetus to get up and do it," he said. "They galvanized me to go."
Witness: I was not ready to die
"The thoughts that were running through my mind were, ' I'm I going to die ... I'm not ready to die,' " she told CNN's "New Day" amid tears. "I have so much more to do with my life. I'm only 28 years old."
She said she owed her life to the passengers who tackled the gunman.
"I'm incredibly grateful to those men. ... They are fantastic human beings," she said. "Thank you so much from the bottom of my heart."
Report: Suspect says he intended to rob train
The alleged gunman, identified as Moroccan national Ayoub El Khazzani, said he only intended to conduct a robbery, not a terror act, his attorney Sophie David told CNN affiliate BFMTV.
David said her client told her he found the firearms in a public garden next to a train station in
But authorities said with the kind of firepower he had, it appears he was planning a massacre.
He had an AK-47 assault weapon with nine magazines of ammunition, a Luger pistol with extra ammo and a box cutter, French Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve said.
"The guy had a lot of ammo," said Skarlatos, a National Guardsman based in
"His intentions were pretty clear."
Spain, France aware of
Spanish officials said the suspect's family moved to
Spain from Morocco in 2007.
He was linked to investigations into radical Islamist networks, a senior European counterterrorism official said. His DNA was on file with Spanish authorities, French media reported.
There are indications he traveled to
Turkey between May and July, probably to try to
join up with ISIS in Syria,
a senior European counterterrorism official told CNN terror analyst Paul
ISIS operatives are using
as a base to redirect European extremists trying to travel to Syria to launch
attacks back home, according to Cruickshank.
Investigators have yet to make a final determination on El Khazzani's travel. He was likely linked to ISIS fighters in
according to the counterterrorism official
It's unclear whether he made it to
Syria or what
he did to attract the attention of Spanish authorities. Spanish police alerted France he was
preparing to travel to the latter country last year, Cazeneuve said
Beyond that, there appears to be a disagreement between French and Spanish sources about who knew what and when.
The suspect is in custody undergoing interrogation.
New York Daily Mail
like he was ready to fight to the end ... So were we': American heroes in
fight with train gunman France
Sunday, August 23, 2015, 1:17 PM
From right, Alek Skarlatos, Anthony Sadler and Spencer Stone conduct a press conference, along with with U.S. Ambassador to France Jane Hartley (l.), about the men's heroics on the European train.
Off-duty U.S. Air Force member Spencer Stone recalled Sunday the harrowing moments when he and his two best friends pummeled the would-be killer, fighting for their lives.
Stone said he had just woken up from a deep sleep when he saw the shooter, identified as Ayoub El-Khazzani, brandishing an AK-47. Stone's friend, National Guardsman Alek Skarlatos, said they had to act.
"Alek just hit me on the shoulder and said, 'Let's go,'" Stone recalled in a
"I put him in a chokehold. It seemed like he kept pulling more weapons left and right," Stone added.
The shooter, who never spoke, pulled out a box cutter and stabbed Stone in the hand and neck.
During the brief confrontation, a French-American passenger was wounded by a bullet.
That's when Skarlatos began bashing the shooter with the butt of his own rifle. The third member of Skarlatos' group, college student Anthony Sadler, punched the Moroccan national in the head as Stone choked him unconscious.
Stone had only had one thing on his mind: "Survival. For myself and for my friends and for everyone else on the train."
British businessman Chris Norman joined the scrum.
"So were we."
It could have been much worse.
Skarlatos said El-Khazzani didn't know how to use his weapon.
"He clearly had no firearms training whatsoever," Skarlatos said of the 26-year-old reportedly known to Spanish anti-terrorism officials.
"If he'd had more training … we probably wouldn't be here today."
After El-Khazzani was subdued, the men began helping wounded passengers. Stone stuck his finger in a wounded passenger's neck, pinching an artery.
"In the beginning it was mostly gut instinct, survival," Skarlatos said. "Our training kicked in after the struggle."
Sadler said the experience taught him that one must act when confronted with extreme crisis.
"Do something. Hiding or sitting back is not going to accomplish anything," Sadler said.
The intense confrontation still hadn't sunk in for the three Americans.
"It feels very unreal. Feels like a dream," Stone said.
U.S. Ambassador Jane Hartley echoed President Obama's praise of the men.
"We often use the word 'hero' and in this case I know that word has never been more appropriate," Hartley said. "They are truly heroes. When most of us would run away, Spencer, Alek and Anthony ran into the line of fire, saying, 'Let's go.' Those words changed the fate of many."