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3 Americans Who Thwarted Train Attack Receive French Medal

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

We are also tracking the aftermath of a European drama. A heavily armed gunman tried to attack a Paris-bound train, and three Americans stopped him. This morning, they met with French President Francois Hollande. NPR's Eleanor Beardsley has their story.

ELEANOR BEARDSLEY, BYLINE: On their first vacation to Europe, Alex Skarlatos, Anthony Sadler and Spencer Stone, all in their early 20s, could not have imagined they'd end up here, in the gilded halls of the Elysee Palace, hosted by French President Francois Hollande, who awarded them with France's highest honor.

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FRANCOIS HOLLANDE: Monsieur Alexander Skarlatos (speaking French).

BEARDSLEY: "Mr. Alexander Skarlatos," said Hollande, "in the name of the French Republic, I hereby make you a knight of the Legion of Honor." Then one by one, Hollande pinned the ribbon and medal to the four heroes - the three Americans and Chris Norman, a British citizen who lives in Paris. The Frenchman who first jumped on the gunman is still recovering from his wounds and wishes to remain anonymous. Hollande commended all of the men.

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HOLLANDE: (Through interpreter) You had the power to resist and have given a beautiful lesson of courage to us all. We can never be weak as long as there are people like you ready to risk their lives for others.

BEARDSLEY: It all began as the three childhood friends took a high-speed train from Amsterdam to Paris. Stone, a U.S. Air Force serviceman, Skarlatos, an Army National Guardsman who had just returned from Afghanistan, and Anthony Sadler, a senior at Sacramento State University. The three rushed down the train aisle to tackle, disarm and tie up the man who came out of the toilets with a Kalashnikov rifle, a pistol and a bag of ammunition. Last night, flanked by American ambassador to France, Jane Hartley, the three men told their story. Anthony Sadler said, yes, he believed there was a lesson to learn from it all.

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ANTHONY SADLER: Hiding or sitting back is not going to accomplish anything, and the gunman would've been successful if my friend Spencer had not gotten up in times of, like, terror like that. Do something, don't just stand by and watch.

BEARDSLEY: The suspect, a 26-year-old Moroccan man, Ayoub El-Khazzani, who boarded the train in Brussels, was on the radar of intelligence officials in France, Belgium and Spain. He's believed to belong to a radical Islamist network and to have tried to travel to Syria in May. He's still under questioning by French counterterrorist police who are looking for accomplices. So far, El-Khazzani is claiming he just wanted to hold up people in the train for their wallets and that he found the cache of weapons in a Brussels park.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Speaking French).

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Speaking French).

BEARDSLEY: All weekend, in cafes and country houses, the French have talked of little else but the three American heroes. A group of friends enjoying one last summer weekend together gathered around the nightly news. Caroline and Philippe Gilbert are among them.

CAROLINE GILBERT: (Through interpreter) They are definitely heroes, and if they hadn't been there, we would've seen massive carnage. They deserve the Legion of Honor and all this attention.

BEARDSLEY: Philippe Gilbert says Europeans can feel overwhelmed by the terror threat these days, but the men's actions send a powerful message.

PHILIPPE GILBERT: Usually we are a little bit negative to - we suppose that everybody would be afraid and everybody would go away from the problem. But we can see that a few people decided to act.

BEARDSLEY: Gilbert says the Americans, the Brit and the Frenchman who resisted on the train send a message of hope to humanity. Eleanor Beardsley, NPR News, Paris. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.