PARIS (AP) — The president of France pinned his country’s highest award, the Legion d’Honneur, on three Americans and a Briton on Monday, saying they “gave a lesson in courage” by subduing a heavily armed attacker on a high-speed train carrying 500 passengers to Paris.
President Francois Hollande said that while two of the Americans who tackled the gunman were soldiers, “on Friday you were simply passengers. You behaved as soldiers but also as responsible men.”
Hollande then pinned the medals on U.S. Airman Spencer Stone, National Guardsman Alek Skarlatos, and their longtime friend Anthony Sadler. All took part in subduing the gunman as he moved through the Amsterdam-to-Paris train with an assault rifle strapped to his bare chest. British businessman Chris Norman, who jumped into the fray, also received the medal.
The Americans looked earnest and slightly overwhelmed — and a little under-dressed — for the unanticipated event in the ornate Elysee Palace. Their short-sleeved polo shirts and khakis contrasted with the gilded and velvet-curtained ceremonial hall as Hollande read out their names one by one — and kissed them on each cheek, in French style.
It was an unusual ceremony for the French president’s office too, as dozens of photographers loudly shouted out the Americans’ names as they approached Hollande standing on the steps of the palace— unlike the quieter, more-subdued welcome for visiting heads of state. The four men listened to a translation of Hollande’s speech through earpieces.
Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel and U.S. Ambassador Jane Hartley also attended the ceremony, along with the head of French national railway authority SNCF.
The men showed “that faced with terror, we have the power to resist. You also gave a lesson in courage, in will, and thus in hope,” Hollande said.
Norman said it was less a question of heroism than survival.
“I said to myself, ‘You’re not going to die sitting there doing nothing,'” he told The Associated Press after the ceremony. “I would do it again. But I don’t know — I think you never know the reaction you will have in those kinds of situations.”
The businessman said he “never thought I’d ever been given such a medal. I will try to be a credit to this honor.”
His arm in a sling and his eye bruised, the 23-year-old Stone has said he was coming out of a deep sleep when the gunman appeared.
Skarlatos, a 22-year-old National Guardsman who was recently back from Afghanistan, “just hit me on the shoulder and said ‘Let’s go,'” Stone said.
With those words, Hollande said, a “veritable carnage” was avoided.
“Since Friday, the entire world admires your courage, your sangfroid, your spirit of solidarity. This is what allowed you to with bare hands — your bare hands — subdue an armed man. This must be an example for all, and a source of inspiration,” Hollande said.
The gunman, identified as 26-year-old Moroccan Ayoub El-Khazzani, is detained and being questioned by French counterterrorism police outside Paris.
El-Khezzani’s lawyer, Sophie David, told Le Monde newspaper the gunman is ill-educated, emaciated, and told her he had spent the past six months traveling between Belgium, Germany and Austria, as well as France and Andorra. She said he told her he only intended to rob the train with a cache of guns he came across in a public garden near the train station and is “dumbfounded” that it is being treated as an act of terrorism.
A French passenger was the first to try to stop the attacker and was also honored Monday, but he did not want his identity publicly known, Hollande said, who added “I understand” the decision.
Hollande said another passenger, French-American citizen Mark Moogalian, also intervened. Moogalian is hospitalized with a gunshot wound from the incident — and his wife told Europe-1 radio Monday that he, too, “is among the heroes in this story.”
Isabella Risacher-Moogalian described hiding behind train seats from the attacker and then seeing her husband wounded. “He looked at me and said ‘I’m hit, I’m hit.’ He thought it was over and he was going to die,” she said.
Associated Press writer Lori Hinnant contributed to this report.