They came dressed in red, white and blue. Kids in Superman capes and proud war veterans crammed the streets of Sacramento to show their hometown pride as the three French train heroes were honored with a parade by the state Capitol.
It was not lost on any that a day of national sorrow was turned into a day of renewed pride.
“It seems fitting to have the parade on Sept. 11, although I hope it doesn’t take away from the remembrance of what happened that day,” says Alek Skarlatos.
Spencer Stone proudly wore his Air Force full uniform even as temperatures reached into the 100s. Stone, Skarlatos and Sadler shook hands with everyone they could who gathered along the sidewalk as they walked up to the stage and afterward stayed until the crowd thinned, shaking hands and smiling to all those who came to see them.
Mayor Kevin Johnson told the crowd they are the kind of sons every family would want. In person, the trio are polite, humble and joyful. They give thanks to God for being with them that day. And if you ask anyone gathered to honor them on Capitol steps, they are the kind of solid folk that personifies all that is right about Americans.
“Look at the rainbow coalition. They are America,” says parade attendee Willie Harden III. “I am so proud to be an American today.”
And what’s the best thing that happened out of all of this?
Stone, who spoke to PEOPLE the day before, doesn’t hesitate to answer: “Saving someone’s life. Maybe saving a lot of people’s lives. When I had my finger in Mark’s neck, stopping him from bleeding out, I looked over and saw this young French girl, maybe in her early 20s, and she was in a fetal position sobbing and I thought, ‘She’s going to be OK.’ ”
Before the parade, the three who have been best buddies since their days at Freedom Christian middle school told PEOPLE they grew up playing paint ball and zombie apocalypse. They were only 8 and 9 when terrorists attacked on 9-11, and grew up thinking about what would happen if they were in a situation where they had to act.
“I didn’t think it was possible for someone to react as quickly as Spencer did when he jumped out of the seat towards the guy,” Sadler said. “We’ve always had each other’s back, so Alek and I fell in right behind him.”
Stone says “You can’t live your life in a cocoon or in fear. You have to act when you need to act. I thought when I ran towards him, I would be mowed down before I got to him, but maybe Alek could get to him, or Anthony. When I heard the click of the gun to the back of my head, I thought this is it, but it didn’t fire. I thought when he slashed me with the boxcutter, he would slice my artery, but none of that happened. God was there with us.”
French native Selma Amrane, 32, works at the hotel where the three were conducting interviews. “They are big here, but they are really big in France. All my friends want to know if I know them. They all want to meet them. They are huge heroes. They gave us all hope that things could change, that your actions can change the world.”
The trio are described as “goof balls, but respectable goof balls” by Sadler’s sister Arissa. When getting ready for a photo shoot, Skarlatos tried talking the stylist out of making him change from his flashy green shoes to a more subdued dress shoe. Stone kept popping out from behind a dressing barrier, often with his shirt off, to chime in during the interviews with his pals.
“We are all single, so this couldn’t have happened at a better time,” jokes Stone.
Stone’s known as the jokester of the group, Skarlatos has a dry sense of humor (“he has no filter, ‘says both his buddies) and Sadler’s the cool kid.
“I never thought the bond between the three of us could get any deeper, but it has,” Stone says. “This is an experience we will always share. And we are having a great time.”
Skarlatos took some ribbing for deciding to go on Dancing with the Stars – “I mean, who wouldn’t do it if they got the chance?” he says.
American Heroes Who Stopped Train Attack Given France’s Highest Honor
Sadler plans on returning next week to Sacramento State to complete his degree, but has quit his job at Coach at the local mall. That’s something he didn’t imagine when he went on vacation. It was something he couldn’t really afford to do, but felt he needed to go to experience life with his friends.
“I was broke, I was almost out of money and wasn’t sure what I was going to do when I got back home, how I would pay my bills,” Sadler says. “And now, all of that has changed and I want to take advantage of the opportunities that are being presented to me right now. When I quit my job, they said they expected it and we parted amicably.”
Sadler, who wants to go into sports medicine, has been offered positions with professional sports teams after he graduates. “I thought I’d be lucky to get a spot at a junior college,” he says.
For now, they are basking in well-deserved glory. They attended Apple’s big “reveal” event last week, meeting with CEO Tim Cook and sports legends Joe Montana, Barry Bonds and tech titans. They are weighing options that didn’t seem possible just a few weeks ago.
But for the people gathered in Sacramento, they felt the three will go down in history for their heroic act that helped heal a nation’s wounds.
“I lost friends in the Oklahoma City bombing and it brings back the horror of that, but these guys were the answer to healing from that,” says Kalila Ahmad of Sacramento. “To know there are people out there like these three should give us all hope. They are just good men and sometimes, that’s all we need to make the world change.”