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On August 21, 2015, a 25-year-old man arrived at Brussels-South station and bought a first-class ticket to Paris. His name was Ayoub el-Khazzani. He caught the 15.17, a sleek, high-speed train that was particularly busy that day with more than 500 passengers spread across its 12 carriages. Because it was a Friday afternoon, many of them were businesspeople speeding home in quiet comfort for the weekend. And because it was summer, many were tourists who had been on the train since it had departed Amsterdam.
But Khazzani was not travelling on business. Nor was he a tourist. When he stepped onto the train in Brussels he was carrying a bag containing the following items: a 9mm Luger pistol, a knife, a hammer, a bottle of petrol and an AK47 assault rifle with nine magazines of ammunition. He boarded that train to carry out a massacre.
Not long after crossing into France, and with the train travelling at around 240km/h, Khazzani got up and entered the first-class toilet cubicle. He watched a YouTube clip on his phone — jihadis inciting the faithful to take up arms in the name of the Prophet — before stripping to the waist. Then he strapped his backpack across his chest to make accessing his ammunition that much easier.
Stepping out of the cubicle brandishing his AK47, he immediately encountered two men. One was a 28-year-old French banker later identified, to preserve his anonymity, as “Damien A”. The other was Mark Moogalian, a 51-year-old US-born Sorbonne professor, a lean, handsome man with dark tousled hair. The two startled passengers attempted to restrain Khazzani, and Moogalian grabbed the assault rifle, twisting it until it fell from the terrorist’s hands. But Khazzani drew his pistol and shot Moogalian in the neck. “I’m hit,” he called to his wife, Isabella, who was by then crouching low behind her seat. “I’m hit.”
Panic erupted, a train guard ran past, but Khazzani appeared unfazed; he picked up his rifle and walked back to the first-class coach, blocking the only exit. He had 270 rounds of ammunition and a carriage of tightly bunched passengers to prey upon. Moogalian, lying prone and with blood spouting from his carotid artery, looked across at his wife and managed two more words: “It’s over.”
And it should have been. But it wasn’t. Not quite. Moogalian’s wife would later recall hearing a loud exclamation coming from further down the carriage — “F..k this shit!” – and seeing a man barrelling down the aisle, directly at Khazzani. This man — young, tall and broad, with close-cropped hair — was Spencer Stone, a 23-year-old medic in the US air force. Running in a straight line, confined by the aisle, Stone could not have presented an easier target. Khazzani raised his rifle and took aim. “I knew this guy was going to kill everyone on board, so my thought process was that I’ve got to kill him or he’s going to kill me,” recalls Stone; his cheerful, matter-of-fact manner is, under the circumstances, nothing but endearing. “If I were to go back and talk to myself in that moment and say, ‘Hey, Spencer, do you think you’re going to make it over there?’ I’d say, ‘Absolutely not. I’m going to die right now. But at least I’m trying.’”
What happened next was messy in just about every possible sense, a frenetic two minutes of blood, violence, confusion and dumb luck. “There were at least five things that, had they gone the other way at any given moment, would have meant a completely different outcome,” says Stone. But before we focus on the struggle on which the lives of hundreds depended, we need to understand why Stone was there in the first place. He was enjoying a once-in-a-lifetime European holiday with two childhood friends, Alek Skarlatos, 22, who had recently completed a tour of Afghanistan as a member of the National Guard [US military reserves], and Anthony Sadler, 23, a college student with no military experience whatsoever, save for the endless airgun battles the three of them used to engage in as kids after school or at weekends.
Stone is 193cm tall, square-jawed and affable. Sadler is a lanky, sweet-looking pastor’s son who is quick to laugh. Skarlatos is brawny with a stubble beard and sandy hair swept up in a quiff. Look at the photos they had been posting to social media in the days and hours prior to the attack and they seem the model of young American men abroad: big smiles, big shorts, curious about everything around them.
When Stone ran down the aisle at Khazzani, Skarlatos and Sadler were right behind him. “I think the really important thing to understand is that we did not expect this to happen,” says Skarlatos. “We were going from a European vacation to all of a sudden having to fight for our lives, like 0 to 100, out of the blue, no warning.”
Just moments before the attack, Stone had been asleep; the sound of the pistol shot followed by the train guard sprinting down the carriage woke him. The three friends turned around to see the shirtless Khazzani holding his AK47. “I was like, is this real?” Sadler would later recall. “Is somebody playing a joke?” A heartbeat passes and then Skarlatos, in a window seat, issues a command to Stone who’s next to him by the aisle: “Spencer, go!” In an instant, his friend is up and out of his seat, racing towards the gunman like the high-school American football player he’d been not so long ago. Khazzani takes aim — he cannot miss — and pulls the trigger. Only… nothing. He pulls the trigger a second time, and again the rifle fails to fire. It will later transpire that he had, for want of a better phrase, a duff bullet. It had a bad primer, so it would not fire. “That happens maybe once every 2000 times,” explains Skarlatos. “So just the odds of that alone ...” he says, then trails off for a moment. “We were exceptionally lucky.”
Stone, to his own surprise as much as anybody’s, makes it to the gunman without being killed. He launches himself at Khazzani, who swings his rifle into Stone’s head before the two men crash to the floor. Then the fight begins. Back on their feet, the two men grapple, and Khazzani seems impossibly strong for someone so wiry. “He was smaller than me, but he was putting up a fight and was ready to die,” says Stone.
Stone, though, knows jujitsu. He works himself behind his adversary and attempts to get him into a chokehold, but Khazzani is punching and struggling too hard to be subdued. Suddenly, Sadler and Skarlatos are there, the latter holding the AK47 to Khazzani’s head. “Stop, f..ker!” he screams, but Khazzani doesn’t stop. “Shoot him!” cries Stone. “I’m trying!” replies his friend, who is struggling to find an angle to shoot Khazzani without the bullet also striking Stone. Eventually, Skarlatos pulls the trigger. Click. Nothing.
It’s around this moment that the order of events becomes a little blurred. At some point Khazzani produces a knife, stabs Stone in the neck several times and almost severs his thumb. He grabs his Luger, aiming it point-blank at Stone’s head, only this time — click click — it’s the pistol that doesn’t fire. Skarlatos prises it away and turns it on Khazzani. Again, it won’t fire. During all this, the terrorist shouts, “Give me back my gun!” The whole thing was, Skarlatos says, “very confusing”.
In fact, amid the horror of it all, there is an almost slapstick element to the fight. And all three men are at pains to emphasise this, to be clear about the fact that these events were not some slickly choreographed action sequence. The way Skarlatos summarises their deeds — deeds that would see them all presented with the Légion d’honneur, France’s highest order of merit — is very nearly funny, such is its low-key matter-of-factness.
“So Spencer reacted to the fact that there was a terrorist by running up and tackling him,” says Skarlatos. “Then he was like, ‘Now I guess I’d better put him in a chokehold.’ So he puts him in a chokehold and I show up, and [Khazzani] has a handgun and is trying to shoot Spencer in the head. So I take the handgun. And he pulls a knife, so Spencer throws him off and we’re all kind of punching on him for a second and then Spencer gets him back in the chokehold. I’ve got nothing to do, so I pick up the AK and start hitting him in the head with it.” He pauses for a moment. “I also tried to shoot him with the handgun first. But you know what I’m saying? We were just reacting. It wasn’t like we had a plan.”
Stone, finally, was able to choke Khazzani into unconsciousness, although Skarlatos hitting him on the head repeatedly with an AK47 probably helped. In the immediate aftermath, the three men were aided by Chris Norman, a 62-year-old British man living in France, who helped keep Khazzani pinned before using his tie and some cable to bind the terrorist’s arms and legs.
Stone used his fingers to plug the bleeding carotid artery in Mark Moogalian’s neck (Moogalian would make a full recovery). Skarlatos took the AK47 and made sure the train was clear of any other terrorists; he discovered that the pistol’s magazine had fallen out, which is why it wouldn’t shoot. Sadler filmed everything on his phone: the bound terrorist, his bleeding friend, the ammo. The train was still moving, but everything, they remember, was so quiet as to be surreal. Before they finally pulled into Arras, to which the train had been rerouted, Sadler and Skarlatos found themselves standing beside one another laughing at the absurdity of what had happened to them. “We were exceptionally lucky,” says Skarlatos. “Because the odds of being in a terrorist attack, then the odds of surviving a terrorist attack, then the odds of being the ones that stopped it and then the odds of those bullets not going off? It’s astronomical. We definitely shouldn’t be alive.”
Instantly, they were heroes, an experience that turned out to be no less surreal than the attack itself. While Stone had surgery on his thumb, Sadler and Skarlatos had a conference call with US president Barack Obama. They arrived in Paris by motorcade, speeding to the US ambassador’s residence where takeaway pizzas had been ordered and their fabulous rooms came stocked with magnums of champagne. “We get robes!” Skarlatos beamed. He and Sadler jumped up and down on the beds while Stone Facetimed his sister.
There were also medals — French medals, Belgian medals — and accolades and a military promotion for Stone. Later, there was a face-to-face meeting with President Obama in the Oval Office, where they were presented with more medals: the Medal of Valor for Sadler; the Airman’s Medal and a Purple Heart for Stone; the Soldier’s Medal for Skarlatos. They became celebrities. They had dinner with Arnold Schwarzenegger. Sadler appeared on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon; Stone was on Jimmy Kimmel Live! Skarlatos took part in Dancing with the Stars and did well.
In a way, they say, all this attention was a good thing. “We didn’t really understand it at the time, but by being busy, it really helped us get over what had happened, because we were having to talk about it a lot in interviews,” says Skarlatos. “I found out later that a way of not getting PTSD is just to stay busy for the first six months after the event. And obviously, we were incredibly busy.”
This didn’t mean there was no psychological fallout. Sadler says that, when the Bataclan attack happened less than three months later, he received texts from people saying they could have used him in Paris. He convinced himself that, somehow, the attacks on Paris that left 130 people dead were in revenge for the massacre they had thwarted.
He believed they had used up all their allotted luck on the train, and events only seemed to confirm this: in October 2015, six weeks after their heroic acts on the train, Stone was stabbed during a night out in Sacramento. A group of men had been harassing his female friends, there was an altercation and he was stabbed in the back, requiring lifesaving open-heart surgery. The week prior to that, there’d been a mass shooting at the Umpqua Community College in Oregon where Skarlatos was a student. Nine people were killed. Skarlatos, had he not been in rehearsals for Dancing with the Stars, would have been on campus. Tragedy seemed to be just half a step behind them. “It felt like a dark cloud falling on us,” says Sadler. “We had to lean on each other. Lean on our friendship.”
The cloud eventually cleared. But their lives didn’t go back to any kind of normality. In fact, what happened next was probably the oddest episode yet. They produced a book about their experiences — The 15:17 to Paris — which was optioned as a film, with Clint Eastwood as director. “He kept flying us out to LA to have meetings, to get our points of view,” says Sadler. But one day they had a meeting with Eastwood that was different. “He’d been talking about auditioning actors and we were kind of thinking that we might be meeting the guys that were going to play us,” says Sadler. “During the conversation he said that he wanted us to act out what we did on the train for the cameras. We said, ‘OK, yeah, that’s fine. We’ll act it out for the actors so that they can see what we did.’ Then he said, ‘Why don’t you guys just play yourselves?’ or something, and kept talking. We were kind of looking at each other while he was talking and then Spencer ended up interrupting, saying, ‘So wait, just so we’re clear, are you asking us to play ourselves?’” mimics Sadler, his intonation rising to a squeak. And Eastwood just shrugged and said, “Yeah. Why not?”
It’s hard to think of a greater casting gamble. The 15:17 to Paris is out next week, so you can judge for yourself. But there is, at least, a rationale behind the decision. “No one else could have gotten the dynamic that the three of us have,” says Stone. “It was an opportunity we couldn’t pass up. Not many people get to star in a Clint Eastwood film about themselves.”
All of them want the film to show just how normal they are. In the aftermath, there was an assumption that they must have all been Marines, battle-scared action men. But they weren’t. “I’m a medic in the air force,” says Stone. “I’d been working in a paediatric unit for three years.” Skarlatos had been to Afghanistan, but as a national guardsman had not seen combat; nor had he ever pretended to. “The other two were being portrayed as these GI Joes who’d seen a whole bunch of war,” says Sadler. “But we were just three ordinary guys who got put in a crazy situation.”
Stone says sometimes he feels as though he’s “living on borrowed time”. Skarlatos says while the attack doesn’t exactly haunt him, “I think about it every day”. Towards the end of our time together, Sadler admits that all three “struggle to consider ourselves heroes”. But everyone calls them heroes anyway. “So we see it as an opportunity to live up to those expectations.”
Now there are movie premieres for them to attend and red carpets to pose on as the world watches them be heroes all over again. “We’re kind of on this crazy rollercoaster ride,” Sadler says. “And if the past few years have taught us anything, it’s that it might go up and it might go down. But it’s not going to stop.”
The 15:17 to Paris opens in cinemas on Thursday; Ayoub el-Khazzani remains in custody awaiting trial
This article first appeared on www.theaustralian.com.au
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