Stopping Terror on the Tracks

Oct. 27, 2015

It was supposed to be the “ultimate Europe trip”: three childhood friends meeting in Rome and traveling to Venice, Munich, Berlin, Amsterdam, and Paris before a grand finale week in Barcelona.

On the high-speed train from Amsterdam to Paris, though, A1C Spencer Stone was suddenly awoken by a railroad employee running by. Even bleary from his nap, Stone could tell the man was at “a full sprint and looked really scared.”

He heard breaking glass and turned to his friends, Anthony Sadler, and Oregon Army National Guard Spc. Aleksander Skarlatos. Stone immediately knew something was wrong.

Then he saw a man with an AK-47.

There wasn’t time for a plan. Stone and Skarlatos put their armrests up, Skarlatos said, “Go get ’em,” and the three young men ran toward the terrorist holding the gun, not sure they would even reach him.

Their actions that day stopped a massacre, instantly turning the three into international celebrities who have been showered with gifts, awards, and praise.

Stone joined the Air Force in October 2012 hoping to become a pararescueman, but his depth perception was not good enough. He then went to SERE school to become an instructor, but was unable to complete the course. His third-choice career field worked out, though—Stone chose to become a medical technician.

He and Skarlatos became friends in elementary school; they met Sadler in middle school. In an interview with Air Force Magazine, Stone said the trio had planned the trip partly as a celebration of Sadler’s college graduation in 2016.

Stone was stationed at Lajes Field, in Portugal’s Azores, and thought it would make more sense to travel through Europe when he lived close, rather than to wait until next year, when he would be stationed at Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada.

The morning of Aug. 21, the three friends ate at Burger King and explored Amsterdam for a few hours before boarding the train. They had first-class tickets, but sat in a different section before deciding it was too crowded. They had settled into seats in the first-class section and Stone was napping with headphones on when the train employee ran past, waking him.

Seconds later, Stone and his friends were charging a man with a rifle, a pistol, 270 rounds of ammunition, a box cutter, and a bottle of gasoline. Authorities later charged Ayoub el Khazzani, a Moroccan, with multiple counts of attempted murder, possession of weapons, and conspiracy.

Stone said it wasn’t even a choice—he had to act.

“I’m not going to run away. I’m not going to leave everyone to die,” he said. “I’d rather die trying than sit back and watch everyone get slaughtered.”

Still, Stone was convinced that he would be shot, and was shocked when he actually reached the gunman.

“I don’t really remember running up to him. I either blacked out or closed my eyes, because I don’t remember anything. … I just heard his footsteps and him trying to work the gun,” Stone said. “I probably closed my eyes, because I was like, ‘I’m gonna get shot, I’m gonna get shot.’”

Stone, trained in Brazilian jujitsu, began wrestling with the man, trying to take away the gun. He put the man in a rear chokehold, while Skarlatos grabbed the AK-47 and told him to stop.

“It seemed like he just kept pulling more weapons left and right,” Stone said in an Air Force video. “Every time I heard a click, I was just like, ‘Oh, I’m still alive. Oh, I’m still alive.’?”

Khazzani allegedly pulled a handgun and pointed it at Stone’s head, but it jammed, so he pulled a six-inch box cutter blade and began slashing at the airman.

Stone looked down at his hand and saw that his thumb was hanging “halfway off,” so he let go. He and his friends pummeled the man, then Stone choked him again until Khazzani was unconscious.

Stop The Bleeding

A British man, Chris Norman, and an off-duty conductor, Eric Tanty, helped them tie the man up.

Then, Stone and his friends noticed another passenger, French-American academic Mark Moogalian, was injured and spurting blood.

Stone went to him, stuck his finger in the man’s neck, and pressed down to stop the blood that had already covered the entire front of his body.

“I felt like I was the only person who could help him,” Stone said. “I didn’t really care about my injuries at that point because of the adrenaline, I didn’t feel them. … I just thought that guy was gonna die, so I wanted to give him a fighting chance.”

The man’s wife, Isabelle Risacher-Moogalian, told CNN her husband was shot when he tried to get the gun away from the attacker, before Stone and his friends reached the terrorist. She had crouched under a seat to hide, and she saw her husband fall to the ground.

When Stone and the others ran to the attacker, Moogalian made eye contact with his wife and told her he was hit and it was “over.”

She saw the blood gushing from his neck and ran to a different part of the train car to find help, but no one responded. She returned to find Stone, also bleeding, with his finger in the wound, talking to Moogalian to keep him conscious.

“I’m sure that saved his life,” she said. “I would not have been able to do anything.”

News of the attempted attack, and the heroes who stopped it, spread quickly. Two days later, the three friends had just finished lunch at the US ambassador’s house in Paris when they were told they would receive the French Legion of Honor medal.

“We all just went crazy, started running around the ambassador’s courtyard, hooting and hollering,” Stone said. “It was fun.”

During the ceremony, French President François Hollande said they showed that “faced with terror, we have the power to resist. You also gave a lesson in courage, in will, and thus in hope,” according to the Associated Press.

Lt. Col. Richard Smith, commander of Stone’s unit, the 65th Medical Operations and Support Squadron at Lajes, said in a press conference that the friends’ actions are “one of the purest examples of service before self that I have ever seen.”

Stone’s ability to go from being attacked to an attacker and then a lifesaver was “pretty impressive,” Smith said.

The same day the group received the Legion of Honor, Secretary of the Air Force Deborah Lee James announced that Stone had been nominated for the Airman’s Medal.

“My heart wanted to jump out of my chest, because that is just like, the biggest honor of all,” Stone said.

He then flew to Ramstein Air Base in Germany, where he was greeted as a hero before going to Landstuhl hospital for medical treatment. He later flew with about 25 airmen redeploying from Southwest Asia on a KC-10 Extender to Travis AFB, Calif., just 45 minutes from his hometown of Carmichael, Calif., for more medical care and rest. He stepped off the plane to a crowd of hundreds of airmen and their families.

Coming Home

“We’re all very proud of A1C Stone,” MSgt. Tanya Hubbard, the 60th Medical Operations Squadron family medicine residency and pediatric clinics superintendent, said at the homecoming. “He is humble and will tell you that he doesn’t deserve all of the fuss, but that’s what makes him special. He acted on survival instincts, but he is naturally a protector, and we’re thankful that he was in that place at that time.”

In September, still less than a month after Stone, Skarlatos, and Sadler disarmed the man on the train, Defense Secretary Ashton B. Carter presented each a medal: The Airman’s Medal for Stone, the Soldier’s Medal for Skarlatos, and the Secretary of Defense Medal of Valor for Sadler.

Stone also received the Purple Heart for injuries he suffered in the attack. Although his injuries occurred while he was off-duty, Stone was eligible to receive the Purple Heart because Congress just this year expanded eligibility for the award in response to the 2009 Fort Hood, Texas, shootings.

“I have lived my life and led my career with the abiding belief that when each of us who wear this uniform or choose to defend this nation are called, we will do the right thing,” Gen. Paul J. Selva, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said at the award ceremony in the Pentagon courtyard. “Gentlemen, thank you for acting, thank you for being people who care enough to make a difference.”

President Barack Obama welcomed the three into the Oval Office, saying that their courage, quick thinking, and teamwork prevented “a real calamity.”

“They represent the very best of America—American heritage—and it’s these kinds of young people who make me extraordinarily optimistic about the future,” Obama said.

Stone “lives to our core values, he holds himself to the highest standards,” CMSAF James A. Cody told reporters at the Air Force Association’s Air & Space Conference in September. “In the face of something that, where most people would freeze, you would hope somebody like Airman Stone would be there [to] act. And that’s exactly what he did.”

Being pushed into the limelight was initially a bit of a challenge for Stone, who said he used to be terrified of public speaking.

“My voice would shake and I’d forget to breathe,” he said. “Before, they’d want me to talk for a promotion ceremony, and I’d try to push it off to anybody else, like, ‘Please don’t make me go up there and make a fool of myself.”

Now, he said, it’s easy for him.

“I feel like I’ve grown up more in these past three weeks than the past 23 years of my life,” Stone said.

Though he said his values were instilled by his family growing up, “the Air Force … gave me the tools to be the person I’ve always wanted to be.”

At press conferences in Paris, Stone wore a sling to support the cast around his surgically repaired thumb, and the cuts and bruises on his face and neck were still apparent. But less than a month later at AFA’s conference, the cuts on his face had healed, he was no longer wearing the sling, and he said he is healing ahead of schedule.

“I should make a full recovery,” Stone said, adding that he had been stabbed about an inch from his carotid artery but is “healing up fast.”

He showcased how well he had healed at a Sept. 18 Nationals baseball game in Washington, D.C. Air Force Chief of Staff, Gen. Mark A. Welsh III took the mound to throw out the first pitch, but almost immediately signaled for relief. Stone trotted out on the field as the crowd cheered, and he threw out the ceremonial pitch with his uninjured hand.

Moogalian, the man Stone saved, is also doing well, he said. “I’m just glad he’s alive. … I’m very grateful he’s alive.”

Welsh highlighted Stone’s actions several times during the conference. “You made us proud. You made the service proud,” Welsh said. “I don’t think you get it yet, I don’t think you know how this has affected people in our service.”

Stone had been scheduled for a permanent change of station to Nellis in November, but got permission to instead move back to Travis—much closer to home—instead. He had previously served at the hospital at Travis for a year-and-a-half, he said, and will be close to his brother, friends, and family.

He also was slated for promotion to senior airman at the end of October, but Welsh decided to promote him again, to staff sergeant, on the first of November. Stone was surprised and ecstatic at this announcement, which came during Welsh’s AFA speech, but Stone said he still hopes he can “live up to what I’m supposed to be.”

Welsh said he wasn’t worried.

“He has stayed very true to himself from the very beginning; he has not let the moment overwhelm him,” Welsh said in a roundtable with reporters. “He has an instinct for saying and doing the right thing, which I think is going to be a very, very good attribute in a young NCO.”

Before that fateful train ride, Stone was planning to leave the Air Force, go to paramedic school, and become a firefighter. Now, he said, he has a lot more doors open to him, so he has to decide what he wants to do.

“I haven’t made a decision yet,” he said in mid-September.

For now, Stone will go back to being a medical technician at the hospital at Travis. Still, he acknowledged that the choice that saved the lives of everyone on the train also altered the course of his own life.

“I’m under a microscope now. I can’t, you know, go out and do everything everyone else does because I’m going to be nitpicked in every single way, but it’s not a problem, because it’s how I should be acting anyway,” he said.

“There’s definitely a lot of pressure to be or act a certain way, but I enjoy it,” Stone said. “It’s not going to be a negative on my life, it’s going to be a positive. I’m going to grow into a stronger and smarter person.”

People around the world—including Carter, Hollande, and Obama—have called Stone and his friends heroes. It feels good, Stone said, “but I don’t consider myself a hero at all. I believe any other airman in the Air Force would have done the same thing. That’s what they’re supposed to do.”

The options were clear, he said: “What would you rather do? Walk away and let everyone die, or would you want to die trying to save somebody? And there’s no greater honor than saving someone else’s life or giving your life for someone else.”