Averting Terrorist Attack in France, Train Heroes Credit God and Their Upbringing

They saved hundreds by stopping an assailant aboard a high-speed train in France. Now The 15:17 to Paris heroes share how courage and faith helped them overcome.

By Josh Shepherd Published on April 25, 2018

Next week, the story of how three American men averted a terrorist attack will be available for download worldwide. The 15:17 to Paris is the latest biopic from director Clint Eastwood — known for his real-life adaptations such as American Sniper, Sully and Invictus.

By drawing out the inner life of his characters, Eastwood attempts to portray deeper themes and avoid clichés. In American Sniper, the post-traumatic stress Navy SEAL Chris Kyle faces is more insidious than the assailants he dealt with on the streets of Ramadi, Iraq.

This time, the director brings that edge of realism with a unique decision: casting the three young men as themselves. On August 21, 2015, Spencer Stone, Anthony Sadler and Alek Skarlatos were on the last leg of a European getaway before heading back to the States.

The three friends boarded an express train in Amsterdam with 500 other passengers. They had no way of knowing Moroccan national Ayoub El-Khazzani had stowed away a stash of weapons including multiple guns and a knife.

When shots rang out, how could three 20-somethings thousands of miles from home overcome their fear? Two were serving in the U.S. Armed Forces — but it wasn’t just military training that kicked in. All three continually credit their Christian faith.

Interviewed from their hometown of Sacramento, California, recent graduate Anthony Sadler and former Air Force Sergeant Spencer Stone recount that fateful train ride. (Alek Skarlatos, referred to in the story, was unavailable.) They also share what it’s like to star in a major Warner Bros. motion picture.

Terrorist Disrupts Friends’ Summer Vacation

Anthony Sadler: It was a half-packed train car, maybe 30 people spread out in different places. It was in the afternoon on a sunny day. We had been asleep. We hear this commotion and a gunshot fires. We see a train employee sprint down the aisle in between us. I think, People are scared, what are they running from?

We look back and see a shirtless guy with an AK-47. We’ve all seen that weapon before, especially in movies. As soon as you see it, you know what’s happening. Spencer runs. Then Alek goes. It was a crash course in 20 seconds. It was decision after decision happening in the blink of an eye.

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Spencer Stone: When I looked at him and decided to run at him, I thought I saw a window of opportunity and that helped me get up. Honestly, I did not think I was going to actually survive. I thought I was going to get shot any second.

We didn’t know if he had a bomb. But he had a 9mm pistol in his waistband and a box cutter. He pulled the pistol out, put it against my head and he pulled the trigger. Click. There’s no ammunition in it.

Running up, I closed my eyes and don’t really remember too much from getting up in the run to him. As soon as I stood up, all his attention went straight to me. He had just picked up the AK-47. He pointed the gun at me and tried to shoot me. I just thought it was done.

Anthony Sadler: Not having the military background of Spencer and Alek, I was third to get up. I was trying to process what I was seeing. Gunman. OK, Spencer’s there. Alek’s there. Now I need to go. It took me just a few more seconds to process it.

When Assailant’s Guns Fail, Heroes Attack

Spencer Stone: The terrorist’s gun didn’t fire. It’s rare for the primer to go bad, which we learned later is what happened. Then I charged at him.

Alek picked up the AK-47 and didn’t know what to do with it for a second. He started using it to hit the terrorist. I thought Alek could turn the tide in his favor at any second.

Anthony Sadler: There’s so much going on, the amount of adrenaline going through everyone. He was flailing around and dropped his backpack. It was a mad fight for survival. The three of us were concentrated on him.

We knew he had more weapons and we couldn’t see them. We didn’t know where things were at.

Spencer Stone: We didn’t know if he had a bomb. But he had a 9mm pistol in his waistband and a box cutter. He pulled the pistol out, put it against my head and he pulled the trigger. Click. There’s no ammunition in it.

Alek threw the AK down and grabbed the pistol out of his hands. Then El-Khazzani lunged at me. He pulled out the box cutter and tried to cut the back of my neck. Luckily, he couldn’t because I had my neck tucked into his shoulder. He sliced my left thumb, lacerated my tendon and nerve.

We knew he had more weapons and we couldn’t see them. We didn’t know where things were at.

That’s what made me throw him into the chokehold. Once I saw the knife, I scream, Hey, he’s got a knife! Get him off me! We pushed him off me from there. We were all pinning him down on top of this table, holding him down with our body weight.

Air Force Medic Saves Wounded Man’s Life

Anthony Sadler: We just wanted to get him to stop moving. We surround him and beat him up. In that scuffle, Spencer is able to grab him another time and put him in a chokehold. He finally secured that one and held it until the terrorist passed out.

I turned around and saw a man bleeding. So our attention turned to that. We learned later it was Frenchman Mark Moogalian. Without him and Chris Norman, we wouldn’t have known anything that happened before.

The terrorist had been in the bathroom. Mark was standing outside the bathroom waiting in line. When he opens the door, ready to begin the spree, he’s holding the AK-47 so another passenger just grabs him out of pure adrenaline. In their fight, Mark is able to take the AK from the gunman and run away with it.

Then the terrorist pulls out the pistol and shoots Mark. That’s the gunshot we heard that woke us up out of our sleep. The employee runs away from the commotion. He turns around to see the gunman pick up the AK that was dropped on the ground. That’s when Spencer charged him.

Spencer Stone: At this point, the terrorist was unconscious. I was still choking him because I was seeing red. Alek and Anthony yell out, Hey this guy’s been hit! Mark had been in between a couple seats this entire time.

So he crawled out from underneath there. I look over the seat and see him just collapsing into the aisle. So I let the terrorist go, hold him down, make sure he doesn’t wake up, then crawled over to Mark.

Anyone could have done what we did. We were presented with a good opportunity and we took it. This is just the way we were raised.

I didn’t really know what I was going to do, to be honest. I was a medic in the Air Force, but I had only worked in a pediatric clinic. I did some ambulance service stuff in Portugal but had never gone on any serious calls. It’s so cliché to say, Your training kicks in but thank God it really did.

So I took my shirt off and was going to use that as a bandage to hold direct pressure. Once I realized that it was his artery, I threw that to the side and just stuck my hand in his neck, found the artery and pinched it. The bleeding just completely stopped.

Anthony Sadler: The terrorist was face down in the middle of the aisle. We pin him down and scream for someone to tie him up with something: Does anybody have any neckties!?

British businessman Chris Norman took charge so we could all do our roles. Alek went to go clear the train, I went to go find something to stop the bleeding, and Spencer had his fingers in Mark’s neck. Chris hog-tied the terrorist.

I am glad we were able to subdue him before things got too crazy. After bleeding the way he was, I’m thankful that Mark is still alive today. It felt like God was pulling all the strings for us and making everything happen. He was the big puppet master up there.

Heroes Credit Their Christian Upbringing

Spencer Stone: Anyone could have done what we did. We were presented with a good opportunity and we took it. This is just the way we were raised. Going up to face this dude, it was three-on-one. There’s power in numbers. Thank God He turned it in our favor and it worked out.

It’s only been a little over two years, and I can’t believe how much has happened. As the film got going, we saw these small touches Clint Eastwood made to be authentic to our story.

Since I was 16, I have been listening to motivational speeches by Les Brown. I put them on my iPod and work out to them. They have really dramatic music in the background. It always gets me pumped up for whatever I’m trying to do.

I was talking with the trainer and we had just filmed the workout montage. I said, I wonder what type of music Clint is going to use? Because I don’t see him using what I listen to. The trainer asked, Well, what did you listen to at this time? I told him about these messages by Brown.

So we pitched it and Clint ended up liking the idea. They ended up using it, including in the trailer. I still listen to him to this day.

Anthony Sadler: The message of the film is that ordinary people can find themselves in a situation like this, and they can have what it takes to do something extraordinary. We don’t believe it’s some trait that only we have or only certain people have. Everybody has it. You just don’t know until you’re in the situation.

 

Directed by Clint Eastwood, The 15:17 to Paris releases via digital channels on May 1 and on DVD/Blu-ray on May 22. Watch as The Stream interviews all three heroes:

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