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'There's nowhere to go, he's got an AK47, and we assumed we were going to die either way'

We talked to the three men who foiled the 2015 attempted terror attack on a train to Paris – and who’re now starring in a Clint Eastwood film about what happened.

Image: ABACA

YOU’RE ON A train that’s in the middle of the lush French countryside, hurtling towards Paris.

As you settle down in your seat for a rest, you hear the sound of breaking glass.

Standing behind you is a man with an AK47 in his hands and ammunition strapped to his chest.

What do you do?

For most of us, the answer would be along the lines of: freeze, panic, scream, stress.

But for three American friends who experienced this real-life scenario during a European trip of a lifetime – off-duty servicemen Alek Skarlatos (then 22) and Spencer Stone (then 22), and friend Anthony Sadler (then 23) – the answer is clear: you try to stop the attack.

The Sacramento-raised trio were taking a trip on a Thalys train from Amsterdam to Paris on 21 August 2015 when the unthinkable occurred and they were forced to take their lives in their hands. And if a bullet in the attacker’s gun hadn’t failed, things would have turned out radically different.

It was a journey that the Americans had somewhat hummed and hawed over – other tourists from home had told them (somewhat surprisingly) that a trip to Paris might not be the highlight of their jaunt around Europe. But they decided to take the trip that summer day anyway – not realising it would catapult them into a deadly situation.

The 15:17 to Paris

Now their story is being told in the new Clint Eastwood film The 15:17 to Paris, which explores not just the terror attack itself, but how the men became friends as boys at school, and how a youthful obsession with guns and war inspired two of them to enter the military.

Made even more unusual is the fact that Eastwood asked the men – who had never acted before – to star as themselves in the film (a “complete shock” says Spencer Stone).

And he did it only three weeks before they were due to start filming. Their experience was so positive that they’re looking to pursue careers in the acting world, having gained approval from the legendary Eastwood himself.

Source: Warner Bros. Pictures/YouTube

“We were like ‘of course we’ll do it’ – and the second he left the room it was like we just realised what a risk he was taking on us, because it’s Clint Eastwood. We don’t want to ruin a Clint Eastwood movie because we can’t act,” Skarlatos tells TheJournal.ie when we meet in a Paris hotel in January.

But knowing the director was confident in them gave them the confidence to say yes.

Going through a traumatic experience is one thing, but portraying it again on screen – on a train just like the real one – is another. To star as themselves in The 15:17 to Paris meant going through the terror attack a second time. Luckily for the men, the Oscar-winning 87-year-old Eastwood is a director who doesn’t go for multiple takes.

What was it like reliving the attack?

“Even though it was a very traumatic experience we turned it into a very positive thing in our lives, and so reliving it wasn’t really that difficult for us, it was more so a lot of fun” says Stone. Suffice to say, these three men might have experienced a terror attack, but they retain a sense of American confidence that appears to have helped them get through it without major psychological harm.

“Because not only did we play ourselves but Mark Moogalian [who was injured by a bullet during the incident was] playing himself, his wife, Chris Norman, a lot of the same exact medical team that brought us off the train two years ago played themselves, a lot of the same policemen, train employees,” says Stone.

“So it was kind of like a big reunion and when we got to redo the fight sequence it just felt like a big rehashing of the events.”

THE 15:17 TO PARIS Source: Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures

‘We assumed we were going to die’

The experience even helped them to clarify some things about the incident. For instance, they had presumed the shot that broke glass and alerted them to the incident was due to the terrorist shooting through the door.

It turned out that when Mark Moogalian was shot, the bullet ricocheted around his body, flew over Stone and Skarlatos’s heads and broke the glass over an emergency hammer near them.

In the film we see how the men immediately get involved in stopping the incident, pouncing on 25-year-old Ayoub El Khazzani as he brandishes a Kalashnikov assault rifle. Nearby is his bag, filled with ammunition. During the incident, Stone – who did most of the subduing – is cut badly on his neck and thumb, while Moogalian is shot.

“I think it was really just at the root of everything our only option, because you’re on a moving train, and you’re in the middle of the countryside, there’s really nowhere to go, he’s got an automatic AK47, and we just assumed we were going to die either way,” says Stone of their instant attempt to stop the attack.

Did the incident change their lives? Anthony Sadler – who Stone and Skarlatos met in the principal’s office in school after getting into trouble – believes so.

In our daily lives it definitely has changed because we just feel very appreciative to be alive.

He says too that their story was often portrayed as the men having time to plan for their attack on the terrorist, which wasn’t the case, so the film shows “how messy it was”.

“Ever since then I feel like as far as everyday life it’s just changed our perspective in a way where we just feel lucky to be alive, and we feel like at this point since we got the chance to play ourselves it’s our responsibility now to spread the story so people can take what they would from it.”

THE 15:17 TO PARIS Spencer Stone (left) Source: Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures

Stone says that the men don’t have nightmares or PTSD over the attack, and that getting to do not just interviews but writing a book and making the film has served as a sort of therapy.

“We’ve been able to dissect everything that had happened and our own psyches a little bit.”

The men (along with British man Chris Norman) received France’s highest honour, the Legion d’Honneur, for their actions. During the ceremony at the Elysee presidential palace, President Francois Hollande said:

A terrorist decided to commit an attack. He had enough weapons and ammunition to carry out a real carnage, and that’s what he would have done if you hadn’t tackled him at a risk to your own lives.

‘I wanted to go back to my quiet life’

Being the public faces of such a serious incident means that the men’s lives have changed irreparably.

Now that they’re starring in the film, there’s little chance of them going back to their former lives.

“It was mostly I wanted to go back to my quiet life,” says Skarlatos. “But at the same time it was also like it was something we wanted to do, and something that people were like ‘you should write a book [about]‘. It’s not like we were chasing it.”

Sadler says that he believes the film offers an alternative to the usual terror stories.

“We have to tell the story in a way because with terrorist attacks these things just don’t happen, somebody usually loses their life or the terrorist [does] at least,” he says. “And our situation just changed the narrative a little bit to where nobody lost their life, not even a terrorist, and so I think it’s unique in that way.”

Anthony Sadler, Alek Skarlatos and Spencer Stone Give A Press Conference At US Ambassador's Residence In Paris Spencer Stone, Anthony Sadler and Alek Skarlatos give a press conference after the incident in 2015 - note Stone's injuries. Source: DPA/PA Images

They haven’t met the attacker since that day, and Skarlatos says they don’t think about him.

Do they worry they might end up being targets themselves because of being so public? “We kind of figured that after the attack we would be naturally,” says Skarlatos.

Interjects Stone: ‘We’re taking it that we already were, so…”

“We’re all a little bit naturally paranoid anyway so not to worry about it,” says Skarlatos.

“We don’t want to invite it but… we are not naive to the fact that it’s a possibility that there might be somebody out there that wants to make a name for themselves or get revenge. But if that’s going to happen we can’t stop that and we just have to live our lives,” says Stone.

And that’s the biggest thing we’ve basically tried to do since everything’s happened, that we don’t let this hinder our day-to-day decisions, if we let it then we wouldn’t even come back to Europe, because we would be too scared.

THE 15:17 TO PARIS Receiving their honour in France, with the French president Francois Hollande. Source: Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures

The men say they weren’t innocent or naive about terror attacks in Europe before they visited. “If somebody’s willing to die to kill people there’s not much you can do to stop them. If you take away guns and have a ton of security then they’ll just run you over with a truck. People will always find a way to kill other people, you can’t stop it,” says Skarlatos.

Sadler says the film isn’t an anti-terrorism film and that they’re not crusaders against terrorism.

“But at the same time it’s extremely relevant because in this day and age that we live in, it’s not traditional battlefields anymore, anybody could find themselves in a situation where they could have to run, hide, save somebody else.”

The film shows Stone in particular is guided by his faith. And asked about the importance of it he emphasises the odds of everything turning out how it did on the day.

“There’s probably 10 things that went our way and if one of those would have been different then it would be a completely different story, and probably hundreds of people would be dead.”

Skarlatos says that his and Stone’s military background mostly came into play in the aftermath, as did Stone’s EMT training. But though they downplay their military training the film shows how it enabled them to confront and subdue the attacker in a way that the average person couldn’t – Stone even got quite injured in the process.

- Source: Keith Bernstein

The trio learned how to do stunts and fights for the film. So will they pursue acting as a career now? “Yeah, yeah we [will]. It was the funnest two months of our lives so we feel like Clint Eastwood raised us up,” says Stone.

Sadler says the men don’t see themselves as anything special – though two of them had the sort of military training the average person does not have. Regardless of whether you think it was luck or divine intervention, the fact the men were on the train that day meant that lives were saved. But they still believe that they weren’t anything special.

“I think the movie makes a good job of showing how ordinary we are, and so people will be able to identify with that and hopefully think that they are also capable of overcoming stuff if they find themselves facing adversity,” says Sadler.

So they can hopefully draw inspiration from that and know that they are capable of the extraordinary as well.

The 15:17 to Paris is released in Irish cinemas tomorrow (9 February).

Read: Blow-by-blow account of how heroes overpowered French train attacker>

Read: French authorities have only hours left to question train gunman>

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