Three Americans, including two servicemen, who tackled a gunman aboard a train from Amsterdam to Paris on Friday are being praised as heroes for thwarting what might have been a massacre.
Airman First Class Spencer Stone, Oregon National Guard Specialist Alek Skarlatos and college senior Anthony Sadler, all friends from childhood, were traveling on the high-speed train when they heard a gunshot and the sound of glass shattering.
"I saw a guy entering the train with an AK-47 and a handgun and I just looked over to Spencer and said, 'Let's go, go!'"'
"I saw a guy entering the train with an AK-47 and a handgun, and I just looked over to Spencer and said, 'Let's go, go!'" Skarlatos said.
The three, along with a British man, Chris Norman, rushed the alleged attacker, who authorities believe is a 26-year-old Moroccan man flagged by Spanish authorities in February 2014 because of his connections to radical Islam.
Two people, including Stone, were seriously injured with non-life-threatening injuries. A third received minor injuries.
U.S. European Command Commander Gen. Philip M. Breedlove said the Americans were traveling while on leave from the military and "took immediate action to subdue an armed gunman before he could engage his automatic weapon on the train."
"These men are heroes. Actions like this clearly illustrate the courage and commitment our young men and women have all the time, whether they are on duty or on leave," he said. "We are extremely proud of their efforts and now are praying for our injured airman to have a speedy recovery."
The shooting happened at 5:45 p.m. local time near Arras, France. Witnesses and authorities said a French passenger who was walking toward the bathroom saw the gunman. The Frenchman tried to subdue the heavily armed man, then fled down a corridor, and the suspect fired two or three shots.
One round hit a man of dual French and American citizenship who was sitting on the train, French Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve said.
Stone, hearing the commotion, bolted after the suspect, pushing him against the restroom, witnesses said and local police said. The suspect took out a box-cutter and slashed Stone as they fought; Skarlatos and Sadler, along with the 62-year-old Brit, Norman, then held him down until authorities could arrest him.
Skarlatos said Stone grabbed the attacker by the neck while he snatched the weapon out of his hands.
"I grabbed the handgun. Got the handgun away from the guy and threw it, and then I grabbed the AK-47, which was at his feet," Skarlatos said.
"If anybody would have gotten shot, it would have been Spencer for sure," he added. "We're very lucky that nobody got killed, especially Spencer."
Sadler told the Associated Press the same account.
"Spencer makes first contact, he tackles the guy, Alek wrestles the gun away from him, and the gunman pulls out a boxcutter and slices Spencer a few times. And the three of us beat him until he was unconscious," he said.
Cazeneuve expressed gratitude to everyone who intervened.
"We owe them greatly for their composure and braveness," he said, adding that they prevented a bigger tragedy.
Cazeneuve cautioned that the suspect's identity is "not yet established with certainty." The man is in custody and is being questioned.
France has been on heightened alert since terror attacks in January that left 17 people dead, including 12 at the Charlie Hebdo magazine office. In June, a lone wolf who claimed ties to Islamic radicals beheaded his employer and set off an explosion at a French factory.
Mayor of Arras Frederic Leturque told NBC News French officials were interviewing Skarlatos and Stone.
"They did their job," he said.
Skarlatos' father, Emanuel, told NBC station KGW that his son called him from a police station to tell him what happened.
"I got pretty emotional and I just said 'I'm proud of you, and I'm thankful and grateful and happy that you're safe," he said.
President Obama was informed of the incident and "expressed his profound gratitude for the courage and quick thinking of several passengers, including U.S. service members, who selflessly subdued the attacker," a White House official said.
“It’s my last year in college, I came to see my friends on my first trip in Europe and we stopped a terrorist.”'
"While the investigation into the attack is in its early stages, it is clear that their heroic actions may have prevented a far worse tragedy," the official said.
Investigators are working to determine a motive. The Paris prosecutor's office said its anti-terrorist section has taken over the judicial investigation.
Sadler, who studies physical therapy at Sacramento State University, told Reuters, "It's my last year in college. I came to see my friends on my first trip in Europe and we stopped a terrorist. It's kind of crazy."
The Arras mayor gave the Americans special medals for their bravery overnight.