August 24, 2015 07:00 AM

The three Americans who helped thwart a gunman’s possible terror attack on a Paris-bound train have been honored with France’s highest award today.

U.S. Air Force Airman First Class Spencer Stone, Army National Guard Specialist Aleksander “Alek” Skarlatos and student Anthony Sadler – three childhood friends from Sacramento – were made Chevalier, knights of the Legion of Honor, by President François Hollande.

“You averted what could have been a true carnage,” Hollande said in a moving ceremony at the élysée Palace. “Your heroism should be an example and a source of inspiration for everyone.”

He added, singling out Stone and Skarlatos, “You behaved like soldiers but also as men, responsible men.”

Alek Skarlatos (center, in green shirt) shakes the hand of President Hollande
Aurelien Meunier/Getty

Also in attendance was 62-year-old British grandfather Chris Norman, who was presented with the award for his efforts as well. All four of their families were on hand to witness the ceremony.

The contrast of the four unlikely companions, three in sports shirts and slacks and one in a tan summer suit, standing next to the French President was obvious and not lost on the honorees. Stone and Skarlatos could barely contain their smiles as they listened to Hollande’s 12-minute speech, while Sadler, who was standing next to Norman, shared several disbelieving laughs with the Brit.

French President Francois Hollande awards off-duty US serviceman Anthony Sadler and British business consultant Chris Norman, left, with France's top Legion d'Honneur medal
MICHEL EULER/AFP/Getty

“Here are four men who with the help of others acted not just to save their own lives but also came to help others and saved the lives of others,” Hollande continued.

“He had enough weapons and ammunition to provoke real carnage, and that’s what he would have done if you hadn’t tackled him at a risk to your own lives,” the French President said, hailing their exemplary courage and “barehanded” struggle against the armed assailant, identified as 25-year-old Ayoub El-Khazzani.

He mentioned others as well: the Frenchman Damien A., who began the struggle with El-Khazzani, and Mark Moogalian, the American professor at Université Sorbonne, who was shot while wrestling with the terrorist and who remains in the hospital. Both, the President said, will receive decorations later.

President Hollande (left) shakes hands with Spencer Stone (center) while Alek Skarlatos (right) looks on
MICHEL EULER/AFP/Getty

Concluding the ceremony, Holland smiled at the Americans and said, “I don’t want three of you, you Americans, to return to your home country without receiving this honor.”

Then, in time-honored custom, he announced: “In the name of France, I make you a knight in the Legion of Honor,” presenting each of the four in turn with the distinctive red ribbon medal before planting two kisses on each recipient.

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