They boarded the train as tourists. They got off as heroes.
Oregon National Guardsman Alek Skarlatos, U.S. Air Force Airman First Class Spencer Stone and recent California State University graduate Anthony Sadler, buddies since childhood, were winding down what had been a fantastic backpacking trip through Europe in October 2015 when terror struck. Or tried to, anyway.
The three sprang into action when a man burst from their train’s bathroom with an assault weapon, pistol, box cutter and tons of ammunition. François Hollande, then president of France, presented them with Legion of Honor medals in a ceremony assembled so hastily that the three strapping young Americans attended in borrowed polo shirts and khakis.
“The attack happens on a Friday, and on Monday we’re in the French equivalent of the White House,” Stone said. “We were definitely humbled by the experience.”
Upon their return to America, then President Barack Obama presented the Medal of Valor to Sadler, the Airman’s Medal and a Purple Heart to Stone and a Soldier’s Medal to Skarlatos.
Their daring exploits were chronicled in the nonfiction book they wrote with Jeffrey E. Stern, and a movie adaptation seemed inevitable. In a unique twist, though, director Clint Eastwood decided to have the three heroes play themselves. Here’s the trailer:
The movie, in theaters Friday, filmed partly in Atlanta. Skarlatos, Stone and Sadler were back in town recently for a promotional tour stop.
“It was honestly the coolest thing we’ll ever experience,” Skarlatos said of making the film. “Clint Eastwood is just an amazing guy. As we got to know him, he became a mentor figure.”
Many of the scenes take place in the travel destinations that led to their fateful train trip, and they paused on Aug. 21, 2017, exactly two years after their encounter with the armed passenger.
“We had a nice little toast with Clint,” Sadler said.
Authorities have identified the suspect as Ayoub El Khazzani, 25, a Moroccan national thought to have ties to Islamist groups. Skarlatos, Stone and Sadler aren’t sure when they might have to testify, but their recollections are sharp.
“It was just a feeling of disbelief, like this couldn’t be happening,” Stone said. “We all just snapped out of it.”
He was injured during the struggle but realized it only afterward.
“I got cut with a box cutter on the back of the neck. He cut my left thumb down the bone,” he said. “The adrenaline was pumping, and I didn’t feel a thing.”
Unfortunately, adrenaline worked in their opponent’s favor as well. As depicted in the movie, subduing the suspect took great effort.
“He was very intense, and he didn’t really say anything, not even so much as a grunt,” Skarlatos said. “My clearest memory was hitting him in the head with the AK.”
The movie does not dwell on their encounter with the suspect, instead easing into the harrowing episode after portraying their childhoods, life after high school and detailed segments on their various European stops. Watching the depiction of what happened on the train is comparatively brief but jarring.
“We’ve seen it a couple of times now,” Stone said. “We’re very pleased with the result.”
He and his friends hope to continue their acting careers and say the experience on the 15:17 to Paris has not quelled their interest in travel.
“We just hope our story shows people they’re capable of doing extraordinary things,” Stone said.
“We can’t let this incident run our lives,” Sadler added. “We’re not going to stop. The plan is to continue living.”