Three Americans, other passengers tackle French train gunman

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(CNN) — He would rather die trying to tackle a terrorist than stay in his seat and be shot.

That’s what a British passenger aboard a high-speed train to Paris said he was thinking when he jumped up to help subdue a heavily armed gunman who ran through his train car.

But Chris Norman said all credit should go to the three American passengers who were the first to take down the suspect, punching him until he was unconscious and then restraining him.

The high-speed train was zipping from Amsterdam to Paris on Friday when a shirtless man emerged from the bathroom -- a rifle slung over his shoulder, witnesses said.  A French passenger and three Americans -- a civilian, an Air Force member and a National Guard member -- jumped into action. They quickly tackled him, possibly averting a massacre aboard the train.

The high-speed train was zipping from Amsterdam to Paris on Friday when a shirtless man emerged from the bathroom — a rifle slung over his shoulder, witnesses said. A French passenger and three Americans — a civilian, an Air Force member and a National Guard member — jumped into action. They quickly tackled him, possibly averting a massacre aboard the train.

President Barack Obama called the three Americans heroes. He spoke to each of them by phone Saturday, commending and congratulating them for their courage and quick action, his spokesman said.

Two of them are U.S. servicemembers. Spencer Stone is in the Air Force and Alek Skarlatos serves in the Oregon National Guard.

French President Francois Hollande saluted the Americans’ bravery and planned to host a meeting with them Monday that will also include top government ministers, his office and CNN affiliate BFMTV reported.

The suspect was identified as a Moroccan national whose DNA was already on file with Spanish authorities, French media reported, citing French official sources. A senior European counterterrorism official told CNN the suspect was linked to investigations into radical Islamist networks.

Four people were hurt in the melee — including one of the Americans, who was cut by the attacker. A passenger in his seat suffered a gunshot wound, another suffered cuts to his neck, and a fourth badly hurt his hand while breaking the glass to pull the emergency brake.

Passengers thwarted the attack

The attack began after a French passenger who went to use the toilets in car 12 found himself face-to-face with a man armed with a Kalashnikov rifle that was strapped to his shoulder, French Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve said.

“The French passenger courageously attempted to overpower him before the aggressor shot the rifle several times,” Cazeneuve said. One of the rifle shots wounded a French-American passenger seated nearby.

That’s when Norman, who was seated in car 13, saw the suspect run through the carriage.

“I then stood up to see what was happening,” he said. “I saw a man with what I think was an AK-47 — anyway, it was some kind of machine gun or submachine gun. So my first reaction was to sit down and hide. Then I heard one guy, an American, say, ‘Go get him’ and I heard another American say, ‘Don’t you do that, buddy’ or something like that.”

Stone, Skarlatos and their friend Anthony Sadler were traveling together when they heard shattering glass and saw people running, Skarlatos’ brother Peter said. Sadler, a college student on his first trip to Europe, said they acted right away.

“My friend Alek Skarlatos yells, ‘Get him!,’ so my friend Spencer Stone immediately gets up to charge the guy, followed by Alek, then myself,” Sadler said.

“The three of us beat up the guy,” Sadler said. “In the process, Spencer gets slashed multiple times by the box cutter, and Alek takes the AK away.”

Spencer suffered cuts to his head and neck, and his thumb was almost cut off, Norman said.

Skarlatos, who joined his friends on vacation after returning from Afghanistan, seized the rifle and hit the suspect in the head with the muzzle.

The attacker, Norman said, “put up quite a bit of a fight. But Spencer Stone is a very strong guy. He actually held him very well and Alexander and Anthony had a pretty good go at hitting him.”

He added later, “The way that … the two Americans had a go at him, he could not do much more.”

Determining the suspect’s identity

The suspected attacker was armed with an assault rifle, a Luger automatic pistol, ammunition and a box-cutter, Cazeneuve said.

French media, citing French officials, on Saturay identified the suspect as Ayoub El Khazzani, a Moroccan national. El Khazzani’s identity was established through DNA analysis and matches the DNA records Spanish authorities had on file, according to French media.

There are strong indications the suspected gunman 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 terrorism analyst Paul Cruickshank on Saturday.

The official added that investigators have yet to make a final determination on the suspected gunman’s travel movements and it is not clear whether he had reached Syria.

The gunman was likely linked to a group of French ISIS fighters in Turkey, the official told CNN. The group is believed to have previously directed an Algerian student to launch attacks in Paris, according to the official

The student — Sid Ahmed Ghlam — was arrested in April 2015 as he allegedly prepared to attack churches in Paris and other targets. He was charged with terrorism offences, which he denies. According to Le Monde newspaper, citing investigators, Ghlam met with French ISIS fighters in Turkey during two trips to Turkey in the months before his plot was thwarted. They allegedly directed him to launch an attack in France rather than travel to Syria, the newspaper reported earlier this month.

When Ghlam returned to France, he discussed attacking a passenger train in online conversations with the French ISIS fighters in Turkey, according to the newspaper.

According to Cruickshank, there is growing concern that ISIS operatives are using Turkey as a base to redirect European extremists trying to travel to Syria to launch attacks back home.

Norman said the suspect appeared to be North African and was “quite small in build, slim.” He added, “I didn’t have any problems overcoming him. He was not necessarily very strong.”

The suspect was tied up

The Americans tied up the attacker while Norman and another passenger helped. Norman said he held the man’s right arm so he couldn’t reach his gun and the other passenger, a Frenchman, took control of his left arm.

After the passengers tied up the gunman, Skarlatos went looking for any other attackers who might be on board, Norman said.

Spencer, though wounded, went to help the passenger who was cut in his neck, applying pressure to stop the bleeding, Norman said.

Sadler went to other train cars to reassure passengers, according to Jean-Hugues Anglade, a well known French actor who was traveling with his family in car 11.

He “came running into our car, yelling that the shooter was overpowered by American soldiers on leave, that everything was fine,” Anglade said in an interview published Saturday with French magazine Paris Match. “He reassured us, he looked for survival blankets and a first aid kit for two seriously injured people.”

Anglade told the magazine he broke the glass to reach the emergency brake, in the process badly cutting his hand and injuring his middle finger to the bone. He required five stitches.

The car he was traveling in was next to the train engine car. After the shots were fired, he said he saw train staff run to the engine car and lock themselves in, but he complained passengers got no response as they banged on the door, pleading for help.

The passengers, he said, “were glued against each other, against the metallic door of the train engine car. We knocked hard on it. We screamed for the personnel to let us in, shouting, ‘Open!’ We wanted them to react! In vain. … No one answered.”

Thalys, in a statement, did not mention what Anglade said happened, but commended the response of its personnel. It said an onboard guard at the front of the train protected passengers and stopped the train.

British passenger cites ‘rapid reasoning’

Norman told reporters that “rapid reasoning” prompted him to jump in and help the three Americans.

“My thought was, ‘OK, I’m probably going to die anyway, so let’s go.’ I’d rather die being active, trying to get him down, then simply sit in the corner and be shot.”

He added later, “What else is there to do? Either you sit down and you die or you get up and you die. It was really nothing more than that.

“We’ve seen enough of these kinds of attacks to understand that they will kill everybody once they get started, and my point of view was, two guys had already started tackling him. Maybe they needed some help. … I said to myself, maybe I have a chance if I get up and I help as well.”

Norman said initially he was afraid, “but then once you start moving, you’re not afraid anymore.”

Asked at what point he realized it was a terrorist attack, he said, “The moment I stood up and saw a guy with an AK-47.”

It’s not clear why the attacker didn’t fire his weapon in car 13, but Norman said he believes it’s because his weapon jammed.

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