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Two U.S. Soldiers Help Subdue Gunman On French Train

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

French authorities say a massacre on a train was narrowly averted thanks to the courage of three American passengers who took down a heavily armed man who appeared to be preparing an attack. Details are still emerging in the drama, which took place late Friday afternoon on a high-speed train traveling from Amsterdam to Paris. No one was killed. Three people were slightly injured. NPR's Eleanor Beardsley sent this report.

ELEANOR BEARDSLEY, BYLINE: A man with a Kalashnikov rifle, a pistol and a knapsack with a dozen fully loaded cartridges was beaten down and tied up by three passengers as the high-speed train hurtled through the Belgian countryside. The train stopped halfway to Paris in the northern French town of Arras, where it was met by dozens of police and French interior minister Bernard Cazeneuve.

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INTERIOR MINISTER BERNARD CAZENEUVE: (Through interpreter) I want to express my gratitude to these American passengers who were particularly courageous in such a difficult situation. All our admiration and gratitude go out to them for their sangfroid, without which we would be facing a terrible drama.

BEARDSLEY: The suspect, a 26-year-old man of Moroccan origin, is being held in Paris and questioned by French antiterrorism authorities. Cazeneuve says the man was under surveillance by French and Spanish authorities and is suspected of belonging to a radical Islamist network. The man boarded the train in Brussels. The heroes of the day are actually three Americans, Anthony Sadler, a senior at Sacramento State University, who was traveling with childhood friends Spencer Stone, an Air Force serviceman, and Alek Skarlatos, a National Guardsman from Oregon, who had just returned from Afghanistan. They were alerted by the gunman's suspicious behavior.

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UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Yeah, yeah, yeah, it's...

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Impressive.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: It's some over here.

BEARDSLEY: A video Sadler took in the train just after the drama unfolded shows a man lying on his stomach in the aisle, his wrist and ankles tied together, and blood on the window. Train personnel are interacting with the American passengers. Another man is wounded and groaning. Early this morning, two of the three Americans described the drama to French media through a French interpreter.

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UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: We heard a gunshot...

UNIDENTIFIED INTERPRETER: (Speaking French).

BEARDSLEY: "We saw a train employee running. Then, we saw the man enter our carriage carrying a Kalashnikov. We decided to rush him."

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: He tackled him, and he got cut by a knife after...

UNIDENTIFIED INTERPRETER: (Speaking French).

BEARDSLEY: "My friend was cut with a knife. Then, I grabbed the gun."

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: Started beating him in the head until he went unconscious and...

BEARDSLEY: French media is reporting the American serviceman who suffered stab wounds was briefly hospitalized, but his life is not in danger.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Speaking French).

BEARDSLEY: French television and radio are airing wall-to-wall coverage of the drama. With 554 people aboard the moving train and no way out, it's clear that a horrific massacre may have been averted. French authorities are said to be establishing the suspect's true identity, looking for accomplices and tracing the suspect's movements prior to boarding the train. Counterterrorism analyst Jean-Charles Brisard says it's not possible to secure all the trains in Europe like airplanes.

JEAN-CHARLES BRISARD: (Through interpreter) Zero risk doesn't exist. And unfortunately, we're going to have to live with it. We have to rely on coordinated intelligence to stop these attacks as they're being planned and before they're carried out.

BEARDSLEY: But, Brisard admits authorities are confronted by a mass terror threat that can take any form at any time. European intelligence services are already stretched thin and overwhelmed, he says. Eleanor Beardsley, NPR News, Paris. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.