You are here
The Charge That Changed Everything
Specialist Alek Skarlatos settled in for what he thought would be a peaceful ride aboard Thalys train 9364 from Brussels, Belgium, to Paris, France, last Aug. 21. He was in the middle of a monthlong European vacation, on the heels of a deployment to Afghanistan. The City of Light, and all it has to offer, awaited him.
About 5:45 p.m., the high-speed train, with 554 Friday passengers, was making its way toward Paris. Skarlatos sat in the middle seat of Car 12, snug between two longtime friends, both of whom had fallen asleep, when he heard what sounded like a gunshot and breaking glass, followed by a train employee sprinting down the aisle, away from the sound, in apparent terror. Skarlatos turned around to see what was going on. About five to seven rows back, in the aisle, was a shirtless man armed with a handgun, an AK-47 and a box cutter.
Sitting in the aisle next to Skarlatos was Spencer Stone, then an airman first class in the Air Force and now a staff sergeant. Stone woke up when the train employee sprinted by. Skarlatos tapped Stone on the shoulder and said something like, “Go.” Stone took off, Skarlatos followed closely behind, and Anthony Sadler, the third of the trio of friends, trailed Skarlatos. They were all unarmed.
Months later, Skarlatos is asked often about those fateful seconds, in between seeing the terrorist and charging him, about his decision to risk his life to save the lives of strangers. It takes longer for Skarlatos to explain what he was thinking than the time he spent actually thinking it. That’s because he didn’t think. He just reacted. “It’s not like I had time to think, ‘Oh, there’s a guy with a gun, we better rush him,’ ” he says. “It was just like, ‘Oh [expletive], get him.’ ”
Skarlatos’ old life, “before the train,” a phrase he now uses often, was about to end. His new one, “after the train,” was about to begin. “It’s not really just a line of demarcation like pre-train and post-train,” he says. “It literally seems like two different lives. The only things that are the same are my friends and family.”
When Skarlatos was 5, he moved with his mom, Heidi Hansen, and brothers Peter and Solon to a new house in his hometown of Carmichael, CA, a suburb of Sacramento. They lived next door to Stone, his mom, and his brother and sister. The families became fast friends.
When the Stone boys first started coming over to play with the Skarlatos boys, they brought squirt guns with them. Hansen hated guns in any form and didn’t want her boys playing with them. She told Stone’s mom, Joyce Eskel, who is her best friend, to stop letting her boys bring guns over. Hansen said she’d throw the squirt guns away if they brought them over again.
Eskel told Hansen to get over it, adding that if Hansen threw away the squirt guns, the boys would turn sticks into guns. Hansen reluctantly gave in. Squirt guns became BB guns, which became paint ball guns. Even then, Hansen hoped the boys’ obsessions with guns would end. She thought getting hit with paint balls would hurt enough to persuade the boys to turn to some other distraction. That never happened.
“We turned the whole street into a war zone,” Stone says. “We did little battles.”
Soon the boys loved shooting real guns, too, Alek most of all. Hansen says she learned an important lesson: Let boys be boys. And she’s grateful she did. Of the five boys between the two families, three joined the military, and another is a police officer. “Thank goodness we have boys who turn into men,” Hansen says.
Sadler became friends with Skarlatos and Stone when they were about 12. As close as they were before the attack, they’re even closer now. “It’s like guys who were in combat,” Hansen says. “They have their backs. … They love each other.”
As Stone, Skarlatos and Sadler rushed toward the gunman—authorities identified him as a 25-year-old Moroccan named Ayoub El-Khazzani—the attacker pointed the AK-47 at Stone and pulled the trigger. It did not fire.
Stone, who is 6-foot-2, 220 pounds and trained in jiujitsu, tackled him. El-Khazzani then tried to shoot Stone with the handgun, a Ruger, but that weapon didn’t fire either. Stone put him in a naked reverse chokehold, and Skarlatos grabbed the handgun.
Using the box cutter, El-Khazzani cut Stone’s neck and nearly sliced off his thumb. Stone heard the cut—it sounded like a blade slicing through cardboard, he says—but he was so caked in adrenaline that he didn’t feel it. Stone learned later the cut to his neck narrowly missed his carotid artery. If that had been severed, he likely would have bled to death. He was bleeding plenty as it was. “It was a pretty intense struggle,” Stone says. “I was kind of questioning whether we were going to live or not through the whole thing. It changed back and forth.”
As the grappling continued, El-Khazzani pulled away from Stone. Stone gave Skarlatos a look that seemed to say, ‘Shoot this guy,’ and Skarlatos pointed the handgun at him and pulled the trigger. It didn’t fire, a good thing because if the bullet had gone through El-Khazzani, it would have hit Stone. Skarlatos hit El-Khazzani in the face with the handgun a few times, then threw it down the aisle and under seats on the right, far out of the attacker’s reach.
Next, Skarlatos grabbed the AK-47, pointed it at the terrorist and pulled the trigger. That didn’t fire either. Stone, Skarlatos and Sadler looked at one another and thought, “Now what?”
The three Americans punched and kicked the terrorist. Stone reapplied the chokehold.
As all of this happened, Skarlatos and Stone say the train was silent, except for their own voices. They shouted instructions back and forth; both recall in particular Skarlatos telling Stone to adjust the chokehold to more tightly block El-Khazzani’s blood flow to the brain. As Stone did that, Skarlatos started muzzle-thumping El-Khazzani with the AK-47.
Much of the early part of the incident is gone from Skarlatos’ memory, but from this point on the details are clearer to him. Skarlatos clearly remembers the blank look on El-Khazzani’s face as he hit him in the head and face repeatedly. He thought the man was on drugs.
The combination of Stone’s chokehold and strikes from the AK-47 rendered El-Khazzani unconscious.
To this point, Skarlatos had acted purely on instinct. He was doing, he says, what anybody who wanted to live would have done. Now, as the terrorist’s arms dropped limply at his sides, Skarlatos’ military training kicked in.
News of what happened on the train spread around the world in a matter of hours. Stone, Skarlatos and Sadler became instant celebrities, even if initial reports got details wrong. (Apparently, everybody in France thinks every American male is a Marine.)
Skarlatos and Sadler spent two nights at the personal residence of Jane Hartley, the U.S. ambassador to France; Stone recovered in a hospital. The three men were awarded the Legion of Honor medal, the highest decoration in France. They toured Paris, albeit quickly and discreetly, as they would have been mobbed had they showed their faces in public.
Skarlatos flew home and gave an interview to ABC’s “Good Morning America.” Someone from that show gave his contact info to a woman from “Dancing With the Stars.” She called Skarlatos and offered him a spot on the show. Skarlatos called Stone and Sadler to ask whether they minded if he became a contestant. Stone resisted at first, until Skarlatos told him how much money he would make, after which Stone fully endorsed the idea.
Competitors advance in the competition through a combination of judges’ scores and viewers’ votes. Skarlatos and dance partner Lindsay Arnold made it to the final episode and finished third—not bad for a guy who, his friends and family say, rarely even went to high school dances. But Skarlatos enjoyed his time on the show, even if he endured ribbing from his friends about it.
In a comment that speaks to the nature of their friendship, Stone laughs and jokes: “He’s 23 years old and has a fully paid off house. And I’m over here with a limp thumb and a bunch of scars. I’m like, ‘Thanks, Alek. Where’s my house?’ ’’
After “Dancing With the Stars” ended, Skarlatos traveled the country with a touring version of the show. That ended in February. “It’s been pretty exhausting,” he says. “Especially coming off the deployment. The last two years, I haven’t even spent two months at home.”
He’s still riding the wave his heroics created. Stone, Skarlatos and Sadler have written a book, The 15:17 to Paris, targeted for release around the one-year anniversary of the attack. There is talk about a movie. They joke that the opening scene should be the three of them sitting in the principal’s office. Skarlatos appears with other notable military figures in another film, the zombie-filled Range 15, that is scheduled for a spring release.
In the meantime, Skarlatos will attend three National Guard schools this spring and summer—Basic Leader Course, Air Assault and Sniper School. He is particularly looking forward to the latter. The precision and expertise required to be a long-range shooter fascinate him, and he grins at the irony that a Soldier famous for hand-to-hand combat always wanted to be a sniper.
“Not only do you have to be smart to know what you’re doing and the math behind it all, but you have to be mentally sound and have good judgment,” he says. “Even for a simple shot, you have to go through a mental checklist to make sure you’re doing everything correctly before you pull the trigger.”
Long term, he’s not sure what he’ll do. The range of options he could pursue is overwhelming. Politicians have asked him to run for office. Before the train, he wanted to be a cop, something he’s still considering. At the very least, a career in law enforcement is there if he wants it. The FBI, CIA and Federal Air Marshal Service have asked him if he wants a job. He’s also weighing a career in TV as a host. No matter the considerations, Skarlatos will keep dealing internally with the same question: Can he embrace the post-train life while staying his pre-train self?
With the terrorist unconscious, Skarlatos says he was thinking super fast, super clear, without doubt or hesitation. “There was no emotion to my thoughts. There was no thinking, ‘What just happened?’ It was, ‘OK, what do we have to do now?’ ” He knew from his military training that the first priority was to pull security. That meant helping the victims, checking for other casualties and making sure there were no other attackers.
The train remained silent. Skarlatos found a man named Chris and told him to stand on the terrorist’s neck, to continue to impede the blood flow to his brain. He saw blood squirting from the neck of a man named Mark Magoolian, a Frenchman who was born in Virginia. Magoolian had confronted the terrorist and been hit with the shot that Skarlatos heard in the first place. Skarlatos told Stone, a medic in the Air Force, to take care of Magoolian. Stone crawled over to Magoolian and stuck two fingers inside the bullet’s exit wound on Magoolian’s neck.
“I felt his [carotid] artery pulsating. I just pressed down and pinched it. It just stopped,” Stone says.
Stone sat there, face to face with Magoolian for 30 minutes or so. The only thing keeping Magoolian from bleeding to death was Stone’s fingers inside his neck. “We’re going to go get some beers after this,” Stone told him, trying to show more confidence than he actually had. “Don’t worry. You’re going to be all right.”
Skarlatos checked the AK-47. When he cycled it, he was surprised to see a round pop out. It landed on a seat. “I’m like, ‘What the hell? Why didn’t that one go off?’ ” he says. He examined it. There was a solid firing strike on the primer, which he knew meant the problem was not with the gun. Investigators later determined that El-Khazzani had nine magazines and 270 rounds. They said he was planning a massacre and have charged him with attempted terrorism. The only reason Stone, Skarlatos and Sadler are alive was that the ammunition El-Khazzani loaded into the AK-47 was garbage, Skarlatos says.
Holding the AK, Skarlatos walked through three cars of the train. He wanted to make sure there were no other threats or injured people. He wonders now what that must have looked like—a barrel-chested man (5-foot-10, 200 pounds), his clothes stained with blood, stalking the aisle with an AK-47. Someone might have thought he was a terrorist.
One January day in Durham, NC, during a break from the “Dancing” tour, Skarlatos sat for lunch, talking about his heroics over Mexican food. Though he has told the story hundreds of times, he told it again patiently and in detail. He is friendly and engaging, a natural story teller.
Fans of the TV show often recognize him in public, though he doubts they know what he did. He wrestles with their reaction to him. He doesn’t want to get caught up in the narrative people have created about him. “People call me hero, and they don’t even know my name,” he says. “I’m the same person I was before. Nobody [cared] about me before. Just because we didn’t want to die, people look up to you. It’s weird.”
As he ate, he showed videos on his phone. One was taken inside the train within minutes of the attack; the terrorist is face down on the ground, his arms and legs hogtied behind him.
Another video is just Skarlatos, alone in his hotel room late that night, recounting what happened that day. He wanted to create an accurate account of what happened while it was still fresh in his mind. As he told the story of Thalys train 9364 then, he still had no idea how big a deal it would become.
In mid-February, almost six months after the train attack, Skarlatos is in the ceremonial office of Oregon Gov. Kate Brown, where he’s receiving the state’s Distinguished Service Medal from her. General Michael Stencel, the state’s adjutant general, is in attendance, too, and there are more full birds here than in an aviary.
Yet Skarlatos seems at ease, mingling with his dad, Emanuel, and various brass as he waits for the ceremony to start. It’s not every day that he talks with the governor and his TAG and so many colonels and elected officials, but lately, it sure seems like it.
Skarlatos received awards from Belgium and France. He met President Obama and was given the Soldier’s Medal, the U.S. Army’s highest award for acts of heroism not involving actual conflict with an enemy. He was welcomed at the Pentagon by Defense Secretary Ash Carter and hundreds of service members. Sacramento, where he lived until 11th grade, threw a parade for him, Stone and Sadler. But Skarlatos says getting this medal from his governor, in his home state, in front of his chain of command, tops all that. “It’s a lot more personal,” he says.
Reading from prepared remarks, Brown says: “In situations like this, where a person puts his life on the line for the sake of others, it begs the question: Does the man make the moment? Or does the moment make the man?”
She answers her own question: “Specialist Skarlatos, events prior to and since that fateful day have demonstrated the kind of man you are: strong, smart, kind, motivated by compassion and terribly, terribly brave. When your moment came, the man you are saved the lives of countless total strangers.”
She steps from behind the podium to place the medal around his neck. She’s 5-foot-3, and the crowd laughs softly when she asks him to bend down slightly.
Skarlatos has appeared on TV shows and in magazines and newspapers around the world. Everybody wants a piece of him. Strangers call him hero. But he doesn’t think he’s any bigger of a deal now. “There’s been other Soldiers in this type of situation where it goes to their head, all the media attention,” Stencel says. “His folks raised him right to stay pretty grounded.”
Despite the numerous honors and endless attention he has received, Skarlatos hasn’t lost sight of what the Guard has instilled in him: that the team is everything. Throughout all of his experiences and commitments and time away from home, his Guard life remains front and center. He has completed all required training through a combination of drills with his unit and split trains. And on top of his regularly scheduled training, he has completed additional days of work. He also continues to report to and check in regularly with his chain of command.
The unit camaraderie he’s always loved during his service is still a huge motivator for him. “The personalities of your friends and fellow Soldiers is really the biggest thing,” he says.
Even Skarlatos’ celebrity has a team benefit, because the humility and strength he has exuded to millions of people has also represented to the world what Guard Soldiers are about, a fact that may well inspire civilians to consider choosing Guard life.
As the ceremony ends and the dignitaries file out, Skarlatos stands in front of Brown’s desk. The governor tells him that she received frequent updates about his dancing performances from a staffer. Skarlatos smiles and asks the staffer, who’s standing right there, “Who’d you vote for? That’s the real question.”
The staffer laughs and swears she voted for him.
Before Skarlatos left for his deployment to Afghanistan in 2014, Hansen was nervous. She told her son that God had “something very exciting” planned for him. “I can’t wait to see it,” she told him, though she had no idea what “it” might be.
That “it” never materialized in Afghanistan. Assigned to Bagram Air Field with C Company, 1st Battalion, 186th Infantry Regiment, 41st Infantry Brigade Combat Team (IBCT), Skarlatos worked security at entry control points. He left the base only once, for sniper training. Other than that, the deployment consisted of waking at 3:30 a.m., starting work at 4 a.m., exercising and hanging out before doing it all over again.
“He always kept morale high in his platoon,” says Sergeant First Class Frank Rademacher, a Veteran of the Oregon Army National Guard who, like Skarlatos, lives in Roseburg, OR, and served with him in Bagram as a member of the 1/186th. “He was always professional, but you could always count on him to lighten the mood a little bit. He had a good read on his guys.”
Skarlatos persevered through the deployment, in no small part because of his comrades. His time there “wasn’t fun obviously, because you’re in Afghanistan,” he says. “But it is what you make it. I was there with a lot of great guys.” He stays in contact with Soldiers he deployed with, including his platoon sergeant, Sergeant First Class (now First Sergeant) Gene Thomey.
Skarlatos’ bravery on the train is a source of pride to the 41st IBCT. “His actions in France were based on the values he has as a person,” values that were shaped by the Guard, says Colonel William J. Prendergast, commander of the 41st. “Teamwork came naturally, with little thought, to prevent a great tragedy. We are proud to call him a Jungleer as a member of the 41st IBCT.”
When Hansen arrived at the French Embassy a few days after the attack, Skarlatos, Stone and Sadler were standing on the steps. She asked Skarlatos if he recalled that conversation about “something very exciting.” He smiled and said yes. Hansen’s recollection is just one of many parts of this story that make Skarlatos marvel at the unlikelihood of it all. One reason he was in Europe was to try to find his father’s boyhood home in Germany. A few days before the attack, Stone, Skarlatos and Sadler considered changing their tickets and staying in Germany a few more days so he could keep looking. They ultimately decided to keep their tickets.
After helping an elderly couple board the train, they sat down in a different car, away from their ticketed seats. They moved to their ticketed seats only for better Wi-Fi. Skarlatos was supposed to sit on the aisle, but he asked Stone to switch with him.
Change any of those factors, and the outcome might have been dramatically different. “We could have done everything right, and if that AK was working, we would have been dead,” Skarlatos says. “We could have done everything right, but if we were in the wrong car, we would have probably been dead.”
Stone’s and Skarlatos’ unique skills were exactly what the situation needed. Stone’s jiujitsu training prepared him to help subdue an attacker. His work as a medic prepared him to save Magoolian’s life. Skarlatos is an expert in weapons and security, which enabled him to take command of the situation once he wrestled the firearms away.
“It was almost like we were training our whole lives to be in this situation,” Skarlatos says.
It’s a few hours after the ceremony in the governor’s office. Skarlatos stands in front of a blue screen in a conference room for a photo shoot. Because Skarlatos is decked out in his dress blues, there is a certain level of decorum he must maintain. Which is not to say he plays it totally straight. “Hello, camera,” he says. “What are you doing this Friday night?”
When Skarlatos changes into civilian clothes, his personality shows even more. He slides his feet into a pair of red, white and blue Nikes with “Merica” on the tongue. They’re remakes of the shoes he was wearing during the attack. He designed those while he was in Afghanistan (Nike.com allows customers to do that) and wore them all over Europe. They got covered in blood in the attack, so he no longer wears them. He plans to display them in a trophy room in his house, along with the medals and gifts he has received.
Click, click, click, hundreds of shots are snapped, to go along with the thousands already taken of him. Skarlatos drops quotes from Zoolander. By now a veteran of photo shoots, he knows more about that world than he ever expected he would. He follows the photographers’ directions but also makes funny faces and does his best “Blue Steel” look.
In between shots, Skarlatos pulls a speaker out of his suitcase and programs music from his cellphone. He introduces one song like a DJ, saying it accurately describes where he’s at right now: “Life’s Been Good” by Joe Walsh.
All the while, his running commentary draws laughs from Oregon Specialist Nicolas Strasser, who is hanging out with Skarlatos for the afternoon. They were teammates on their high school lacrosse team and deployed to Afghanistan together. Strasser considered going on the trip to Europe before ruling it out.
Skarlatos sings, and sometimes lip syncs, songs by ZZ Top, Fleetwood Mac and Kanye West. Strasser asks if he has any country music. Skarlatos cracks that Strasser started liking country only after he bought a diesel pickup truck.
Strasser sighs in mock exasperation. Fame hasn’t changed his friend.