The three Americans at the center of a successful effort Friday to thwart a gunman’s possible terrorist attack on a Paris-bound train got one more in a long line of thanks you this afternoon – this one from President Barack Obama.
“The President called USAF Airman First Class Spencer Stone, Army National Guard Specialist Aleksander “Alek” Skarlatos, and Mr. Anthony Sadler to commend and congratulate them for their courage and quick action,” Principal Deputy Press Secretary Eric Schultz tells PEOPLE.
“The President expressed his gratitude to these three individuals for their heroic actions forestalling an even greater tragedy,” Schultz continued.
U.S. Airman Spencer Stone, the only one in the group injured in the assault, has been released from the hospital, according to the Telegraph.
Sadler, Skarlatos and Stone, all friends traveling together on their first European vacation, were awarded medals by a local mayor, soon after the train stopped and the gunman was arrested.
They were joined in that award by a fourth man, British citizen Chris Norman, who assisted.
“Do I think of myself as a hero? No. If there are heroes, it’s [Alex Skarlatos] and Spencer,” Norman told reporters in Arras, France. “And I think without Spencer we’d all be dead.”
Norman said of the gunman’s planned attack: “To be honest, I don’t know why he didn’t succeed. We had tremendous luck.”
It all happened very quickly: Their crowded train was headed to Paris from Amsterdam and had just crossed the Belgian-French border, at about 6 p.m. local time, when a lone gunman emerged from a bathroom armed with an assault rifle, handgun and box cutter.
French officials said the unidentified man, who was armed with 300 rounds of ammunition, was surprised by someone entering the bathroom.
The gunman fired, drawing the attention of the trio.
“At that point I ducked down,” Skarlatos, who recently returned from Afghanistan, told Britain’s Sky News on Saturday. “[Stone] next to me ducked down.
“I just looked at Spencer and said, ‘Let’s go! Go!’ ”
Stone moved first, Skarlatos said. “I followed behind him by about three seconds. Spencer got to the guy first, grabbed the guy by the neck and I grabbed the handgun, got the handgun away from the guy and threw it.
“Then I grabbed the AK which was at his feet, and started muzzle-bumping him in the head with it.”
The group “just started beating on the guy while Spencer held the chokehold until he went unconscious.”
“[The gunman] didn’t say anything,” 19-year-old Anthony Sadler, who was traveling with Skarlatos and Stone, told France’s BFM. “He just kept telling us to give back his gun: ‘Give me back my gun, give me back my gun!’ ”
Skarlatos “started walking up and down a few of the cars to make sure there wasn’t another gunman,” he said. He soon learned that the assault rifle had a faulty primer, meaning it wouldn’t have been able to fire. And the handgun was missing a magazine.
“I mean if that guy’s weapon had been functioning properly, I don’t even want to think how it would have went,” he told Sky News.
One other passenger was wounded during the struggle, French officials said. Stone, who has had some medical training, began treatment on the man, an unidentified French-American citizen traveling with his wife.
Actor Jean Hughes-Anglade was also injured while breaking glass to warn engineers to stop the train.
Anglade was treated and keep in hospital overnight. He told Paris Match that he and his family “were in the wrong place – but with the right people. It was a miracle.”
Stone is also “doing well” after the attack, Sadler said.
The captured gunman, who was arrested at a rail station in Arras, France, is a 26-year-old Morocco citizen already known to police, French officials said.
He allegedly told authorities he “found” the weapons in a Brussels park and meant only to take the train hostage for ransom, according to France’s BFM.
Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve said Saturday morning on French TV that the man’s identity is still being confirmed, but that his profile matches a radicalized Muslim who may have been flagged by Spanish authorities in 2014, and who had been living since in Belgium.
The entire incident was “unreal,” Skarlatos told Sky News.
“I didn’t think I believed it,” he said. “It felt like a dream or a movie or something. Even now looking back at what happened, at what we did, it just feels like a dream. It feels unreal.”
The American Ambassador to France, Jane Hartley, had other words for it. She said in a statement: “I am profoundly grateful for the courage and heroism of those passengers, including members of the U.S. armed services.”
Obama also spoke later Saturday with Hollande and while U.S. officials stopped short of outright labeling the incident a “terrorist attack,” pending further investigation, a statement from the White House said the two presidents agreed the assailant was “a heavily armed individual who appeared intent on causing mass casualties.” The statement went on to affirm that the U.S. and France will continue to work together “to combat the scourge of terrorism.”
•Reporting by SANDRA SOBEIRAJ-WESTFALL