The three Americans who helped thwart a gunman’s possible terror attack on Friday almost didn’t get on the Paris-bound train, the parents of one of the heroes tell PEOPLE exclusively.
On Monday, USAF Airman First Class Spencer Stone, Army National Guard Specialist Aleksander “Alek” Skarlatos and Anthony Sadler were presented with the Légion d’Honneur, France’s highest award, for their roles in stopping the attack. But the friends nearly decided not to travel to France at all.
“They almost canceled their trip to France because they were having so much fun in Amsterdam,” Alek’s dad Emmanuel Skarlatos, 65, tells PEOPLE. “But then they decided to go.”
Alek’s stepmom Karen Skarlatos says it was fate that the three men, childhood friends from Sacramento, California, ultimately ended up getting on the train after all.
“I think God prepared him for that day,” Karen says. “Like my grandson said, ‘God told Alek to go on that train.’ ”
She adds: “Alek was prepared mentally and physically for this. I think faith is a big deal, when you’re going to act and you’ve got the big guy behind you.”
On Sunday, the group revealed that they also were almost sitting in a different car than the one in which the incident took place. The three men explained that while they had initially purchased tickets in the First Class car, they moved to a different car during the trip. Thirty minutes before the incident, they moved back to their assigned seats because the “wi-fi was lousy.”
The suspect, identified as 25-year-old Ayoub El-Khazzani, has reportedly denied that the attack has any connections to terrorism. His lawyer says he claims to be homeless and that he found the rifle in a suitcase in a Brussels park where he sometimes sleeps. He claims El-Khazzani planned to rob people on the train.
But El-Khazzani was already known to American intelligence at the time of the attack, a source told PEOPLE.
“A foreign intelligence service had him on their radar screen. They notified other agencies. Because of our relationships with foreign agencies, the suspect came on our radar as well,” an American counterterror official said. “He was known to us.”
Karen says Alek and the other two men saw their moment to take down El-Khazzani when he stopped to change the magazine. “He said the guy walked in their compartment after he’d already fired off a round in the other car. He tried to change the clip, and it was jammed,” she says, recounting what Alek told her.
“Alek looked at Spencer and said, ‘Go, go, go,’ ” she continues. “Spencer got there first, and Alek got the gun. Alek then smacked [El-Khazzani] in the head with the butt of the gun.”
For her part, stepmom Karen can barely stop smiling, she’s so proud of her stepson. “Alek is an amazing kid,” she says. “I’ve always said that for being a stepmom, I got lucky.”
She adds: “He’s strong, brave, funny, silly – just all the things that make up an awesome person.”
And the phone hasn’t stopped ringing since news of Alek’s involvement broke. “We opened a bottle of wine to toast the boys,” Karen says. “The bottle of wine is still on the counter and we’ve yet to toast our boys.”
But they definitely plan to celebrate once Alek returns home. Adds Karen: “He’s got a warrior’s heart.”
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