Three Americans, Briton get highest French honor for stopping train attack

Posted at 5:21 AM, Aug 24, 2015
and last updated 2015-08-24 05:24:02-04

(CNN) — They grew up together, fought off an attacker together and were honored together.

Two days after they pounced and subdued a gunman aboard a packed train, childhood American friends Anthony Sadler, Spencer Stone and Alek Skarlatos got the Legion of Honor — France’s highest recognition.

Fellow British passenger Chris Norman, who helped tackle the gunman, also got the award during the ceremony at Elysee Palace on Monday.

“By their courage, they saved lives,” President Francois 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 to Paris.

“Three friends, discovering Europe — heading to Paris,” Hollande said. “Three Americans and one Englishman … you risked your lives to defend an ideal, the ideal of liberty and freedom.”

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 award in 1802 to recognize exceptional leaders and unusual achievements.

‘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 in Sacramento. “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 incident. “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, northern France.

“I feel happy to alive … I want to thank my team members — Alek, Spencer and Sadler,” Norman said.

The confrontation left Stone, a U.S. Air Force member who tackled the attacker first, with wounds in the head and neck, and his thumb nearly cut off. He was hospitalized and released.

“It is clear that their heroic actions may have prevented a far worse tragedy,” U.S. President Barack Obama said.

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 Brussels, Belgium.

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 Oregon. “His intentions were pretty clear.”

Spain, France knew about suspect

Spanish officials say 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 from Europe 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 Cruickshank.

ISIS operatives are using Turkey as a base to redirect European extremists trying to travel to Syria to launch attacks back home, according to Cruickshank.

Link to ISIS fighters?

Investigators have yet to make a final determination on El Khazzani’s travel. He was likely linked to ISIS fighters in Turkey, according to the official

It’s unclear whether he made it to Syria or what he did to attract the attention of Spanish authorities. Spanish police alerted the French that 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 interrogations.