- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 23, 2015

Alek Skarlatos of Roseburg, Oregon, says he had little time to think before springing into action Friday and stopping a massacre aboard a Paris-bound train, relying on his military training and a “gut instinct” to survive.

The 22-year-old Oregon National Guardsman, who recently returned from Afghanistan, was one of three Americans who thwarted an apparent terrorist attack and saved the lives of dozens of passengers.

Now hailed as heroes, the three young men said Sunday that they simply did what they knew was right.

“In the beginning, it was mostly gut instinct, survival,” Guardsman Skarlatos said at a Paris press conference Sunday, his first public comments since Friday’s incident. “Our training kicked in after the struggle.”

Guardsman Skarlatos and two friends — Airman 1st Class Spencer Stone, 23, of California, and Anthony Sadler, 23, a senior at Sacramento State University — were vacationing in Europe last week and found themselves aboard the same Amsterdam-to-Paris train as Ayoub El-Khazzani, a 26-year-old Moroccan armed with an assault rifle, a pistol and a box cutter.

A motive has yet to be revealed, but authorities say Mr. El-Khazzani has spent time in Syria and is known to foreign intelligence services as a possible Islamic extremist.

The attack came suddenly, Airman Stone said, and his friends woke him from a deep sleep as Mr. El-Khazzani fumbled with his assault rifle.

Airman Stone said one of his friends “hit me on the shoulder and said, ‘Let’s go.’”

“He seemed like he was ready to fight to the end. So were we,” Airman Stone added during the news conference, which was held at the U.S. Embassy in Paris.

Mr. Sadler recounted the moment the assault began, saying it was clear that Mr. El-Khazzani would begin shooting passengers in cold blood unless he was stopped.

“At that time he was cocking the AK-47,” he said. “So it was either do something or die.”

The three Americans were aided in the fight by a Briton and a French national, both of whom helped subdue Mr. El-Khazzani, who remains in the custody of French authorities.

Two people were wounded in the assault. A French-American was struck by a bullet, according to media reports, and Airman Stone himself was stabbed on the neck and hand with a box cutter after putting the gunman in a chokehold.

Without action by his friends, who kept punching the gunman and prevented him from doing further damage, Airman Stone says he may not have made it out alive. The men then tied up the suspect until authorities arrived.

“I trust both my friends very much,” he said. “If it wasn’t for them, I would have been dead.”

In the days since the incident, the three men have been praised by President Obama and other American officials. While vacationing on Martha’s Vineyard, Mr. Obama personally called Airman Stone, Mr. Sadler and Guardsman Skarlatos to thank them for their bravery.

“The president expressed his gratitude to these three individuals for their heroic actions forestalling an even greater tragedy,” the White House said in a statement Saturday. “The president wished Airman Stone a full and speedy recovery, and expressed how proud all Americans are of their extraordinary bravery.”

U.S. Ambassador to France Jane Hartley, who appeared alongside the three men Sunday, said their quick action prevented significant bloodshed.

“They are truly heroes. When most of us would run away, Spencer, Alek and Anthony ran into the line of fire, saying ‘Let’s go,” she said. “Those words changed the fate of many.”

French President Francois Hollande and other French officials will meet with the American trio on Monday, as well as with the French citizen who first came across Mr. El-Khazzani near a train bathroom and the British man who joined to help tie up the attacker.

Other passengers on the train said the men not only handled the gunman but also reassured others that the situation was under control.

He “came running into the car, yelling that the shooter was overpowered by American soldiers on leave, that everything was fine,” a French passenger told Paris Match magazine. “He reassured us [and] he looked for survival blankets and a first aid kit for two seriously injured people.”

Meanwhile, Mr. El-Khazzani’s lawyer, Sophie David, argues the alleged gunman was not carrying out an act of terrorism and instead was trying to rob the train in order to feed his family.

Mr. El-Khezzani boarded in Brussels with what France’s interior minister said was an arsenal of weapons that included a Luger pistol, numerous loaded magazines and the box cutter, The Associated Press reported. He was subdued while the train traveled through Belgium, but was taken into custody in the northern French town of Arras, where the train was rerouted.

“He is dumbfounded that his action is being characterized as terrorism,” Ms. David said.

He described himself as homeless, and Ms. David said she had “no doubt” this was true, saying he was “very, very thin,” as if suffering from malnutrition and “with a very wild look in his eyes.”

He claims to have found the weapons in a park near the Brussels train station where he had been sleeping, stashed them for several days and then decided to hold up train passengers.

This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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