France train shooting: How three childhood friends made the heart-stopping decision to charge a gunman armed with an AK-47

The heroic intervention of three Americans averted a horrifying massacre

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The Independent Online

‘Let’s go!” In a split second, three childhood friends made the heart-stopping decision to charge the length of a train carriage to attack a gunman armed with an AK-47 who had opened fire on passengers. Their heroic intervention, which took place on the Amsterdam-Paris express, appears to have averted a horrifying massacre.

Shortly after the gunman, believed to be a 26-year Moroccan man, emerged from the toilet inside carriage 12, the shooting began. One man was hit in the neck by a bullet as terrified passengers and staff fled. But Americans Spencer Stone, Alek Skarlatos and Anthony Sadler, all in their early twenties and on holiday in Europe, sprinted to help a French bank worker who was struggling with the gunman after meeting him at the door to the toilet. Reports say the gunman was armed with an assault rifle, a pistol, a knife and hundreds of rounds of ammunition.

“We just did what we had to do. You either run away or fight. We chose to fight and got lucky and didn’t die,” Mr Skarlatos told Sky News.

The White House praised the men – two of whom are serving members of the US military – for “preventing a far worse tragedy” on the train, which was carrying more than 550 people.

French anti-terror police were questioning the Moroccan man last night, while Mr Stone, 22, was in hospital being treated for knife wounds to his neck and hand. He was reported to be “in good spirits” and “doing great”.

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The life-and-death struggle, which happened at about 5.45pm on Friday, was all over in 15 seconds. While some details remain unclear, it is apparent that the three Americans’ intervention was decisive.

While the gunman was initially confronted by the French bank worker, it was the decision of the three Americans to get involved that tilted the balance – the trio beat and choked the gunman senseless as a British IT worker, Chris Norman, helped restrain him. Mr Norman, 62,  said: “My thought was, ‘OK, I am probably going to die anyway so let’s go.’ I would rather die being active, trying to get him down, than simply sit in the corner and be shot.”

It was only after the frenzied struggle, as the gunman lay unconscious and bound on the carriage floor, that the men realised just how lucky they were.

A faulty round in the rifle – capable of firing up to 600 rounds a minute – may have caused it to jam. The gunman also appears to have failed to load the handgun correctly, meaning he could fire only one shot. Passengers reported hearing a repeated clicking sound during the struggle.

“If that guy’s weapon had been functioning properly, I don’t even want to think about how it would have went,” Mr Skarlatos said. Speaking from a hotel in Arras, northern France, near where the shooting took place, Mr Skarlatos – a 22-year-old National Guardsman from Oregon who finished a tour of duty in Afghanistan last month – said he had acted instinctively.

“I didn’t even have time to think or didn’t realise or fully comprehend what was going on. I honestly didn’t believe it. It felt like it was a dream or a movie,” he said.

“I just looked at Spencer and said, ‘Let’s go!’ Spencer got to the guy first, grabbed the guy by the neck and I grabbed the handgun, got the handgun away from the guy and threw it. Then I grabbed the AK, which was at his feet, and started muzzle thumping him in the head with it.”

Mr Stone has been training as a member of the US Air Force based in the Azores, while Mr Sadler modestly described himself as “just a college student”.

“I came to see my friends on my first trip in Europe and we stopped a terrorist. It’s kind of crazy,” he said. A student at Sacramento University in California, he told the AFP news agency that when the three ran towards the gunman, they “didn’t know if the gun wasn’t working or anything like that”. He said: “Spencer just ran anyway and if anyone had gotten shot, it would have been Spencer and we’re just very lucky that nobody got killed.”

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French police at Arras station (Reuters)

During the struggle, the gunman bizarrely demanded the return of his weapon, shouting, “Give me back my gun! Give me back my gun!”, Mr Sadler said. “But we just carried on beating him up and immobilised him and that was it.”

Despite his injuries, Mr Stone used his military first-aid training to help the shot passenger, a US-French national. Mr Sadler credited this with saving the man’s life, saying blood had been pouring from the wound.

In a smartphone video of the aftermath, the gunman is seen lying on the floor with his hands tied behind his back, apparently with Mr Stone’s T-shirt. The shirtless Mr Stone can also be seen with blood around the back of his neck. An American voice says: “Dude, I tried to shoot him but…” Another replies: “You did.”

Mr Skarlatos said he then took the AK-47 and walked through a number of carriages to check whether there was another attacker. He then made the weapons safe, discovering that the rifle had misfired and the magazine in the pistol had fallen out.

The gunman has reportedly told French authorities that he found the weapons in a park and was only planning to rob the train’s passengers.

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The AK-47 with a backpack

But the French film actor Jean-Hugues Anglade, 60, who was in the carriage where the shooting happened, made it clear that passengers believed they were about to die. “I thought that was the end, that we were going to die, that he was going to kill us all. Yes, I saw myself dying because we were prisoners of the train and it was impossible to escape this nightmare,” he said in an interview with Paris Match. “We were captured in a trap. It’s a terrifying feeling to feel that powerless.”

Agnès Ogier, director-general of the Thalys train company, said: “One of the two controllers from the last carriage found himself near the bullets. He felt them brush past him. He took five or six passengers with him. He took them to the luggage car … and there he signalled an alarm.”

Mr Norman, who lives in the south of France, was given a medal by the mayor of Arras, as were the two uninjured Americans. But Mr Norman played down his role, saying “Spencer is the real hero” and that he only “came in at the end of it”.

Mr Sadler’s father, also called Anthony, told the KCRA TV station in Sacramento that he was “stunned” by the events.

“He leaves here a young man on an excursion to broaden his world view and have fun with his buddies and he comes back a national hero,” he said.

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