How American Heroism and Battlefield Medical Training Saved Lives on a Train in Paris

[L to R] Anthony Sadler, Alek Skarlatos and Spencer Stone. Photo Courtesy of USAF.
[L to R] Anthony Sadler, Alek Skarlatos and Spencer Stone. Photo Courtesy of USAF.

It was as if someone “flipped a switch.”

Spencer Stone, jostled from a catnap aboard a Paris-bound train, suddenly faced a shirtless gunman. He didn’t stop to think about what to do. Vowing not to die sitting down, Spencer rushed the man, later identified as Moroccan-born terrorist inspired by ISIS.

“Go, Spencer!” urged childhood friend Alek Skarlatos who with Anthony Sadler, another school buddy, joined the charge, unarmed, against a fanatic with an AK-47.

Who does that?

Of course “flipping a switch” is how we start gadgets, but these lifelong friends were no robots.

Each one’s character—and their friendship—forged at a Christian school in Fair Oaks, California. They were known as polite young men, but also hard workers, fit, primed for service, and loyal to each other.

Anthony enrolled to study kinesiology at California State University, Sacramento, while Spencer enlisted in the U.S. Air Force and served at a base in Portugal.

Alek joined the National Guard in Oregon. After he completed a deployment to Afghanistan, the friends, all in their early 20s, reunited for a European vacation.

On Aug. 21, 2015 they were on a train that departed Amsterdam, destined for Paris. It passed through Belgium into France, but at about 5:45 p.m., Ayoub El Kahzzani, emerged from a restroom with the AK, a 9 mm pistol, and a box cutter.

Mark Moogalian, an American-born Frenchman, grabbed for the rifle, but El Kahzzani wounded him in the neck with the pistol.

Alek, hearing the noise, poked the napping Spencer who turned and saw the threat.

Spencer’s recollections are described in the trio’s shared autobiography, The 15:17 to Paris: The True Story Of A Terrorist, A Train, And Three American Heroes, soon to be a feature film directed by Clint Eastwood.

The book recounts that Spencer felt that, “Someone has to get this guy.”

The story continues: “A sliver of frustration sparks off something in his brain. I’m gonna die here—then an electrical charge surges through his entire body and one more final thought tumbles home with a flood of energy, a notion stored away from a classroom at Fort Sam two years ago that his brain now accesses like a hard drive retrieving a kernel of information: I am not going to die sitting down …  Spencer gets up and starts running. Alek’s voice comes to him as encouragement from another universe, cheering him on: ‘Spencer, go!’ and Spencer locks eyes with the terrorist …”

It was a powerful tackle, but the man sliced Spencer with the box cutter and nearly severed a thumb. Also in the fray was British businessman Chris Norman. With Anthony and Alek they disarmed El Kahzzani, and then Alek pummeled him into unconsciousness with the AK.

But their heroism didn’t stop there. They applied their medical training to Mark, who bled profusely.

Here, the book also explores Anthony’s thoughts:

“Through the fog lifting in his mind he understands they’ve just encountered a terrorist. We frigging stopped a terrorist.

“Mostly, it doesn’t make sense that Spencer got out of his seat so fast it was like he charged the terrorist before the terrorist even showed up … Spencer, how did you know? But Spencer is busy talking to Mark, the man with the bullet wound, who’s started groaning again. ‘I’m sorry, bud,’ Spencer says. ‘If I move, you die.’

“He has an arterial bleed, and is only alive because Spencer is plugging with his fingers, but Mark doesn’t seem to know or care all that much about the fact that he’s dying.

“‘I can’t move you,’ Spencer says. ‘I’ll lose the hole.’

“‘Just let me shift a little, my arm’s really sore.’

“‘Yeah. We’re not worried about your arm right now.’”

But Mark, an English teacher in his early 50s, survived. So did others on the train, which would not have been the case if El Kahzzani had been able to unload the multiple AK magazines he carried.

For their heroism, the three Californians and Norman earned the Legion of Honor medal, France’s highest decoration. The trio also received military honors and invitations to appear on TV. Alek even won third place on “Dancing with the Stars.”

And Eastwood, so impressed with the young men, chose them to portray themselves in the movie, due to hit theaters in February.

“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,” said then-Defense Secretary Ash Carter.

El Kahzzani is jailed, facing multiple charges of terrorism.

“He seemed like he was ready to fight to the end,” Spencer said. “So were we.”

Anyone who aspires to be a civilian “sheep dog” can relate to these heroes who, at the core, are just ordinary people, but well trained to meet danger and its aftermath because of their willingness to serve.

— by Bill Miller, contributor, Texas, U.S. Law Shield

You can learn the same life-saving techniques taught to our soldiers by getting certified in First Aid for Gunshot Wounds. Go to to get certified today!

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