Big read: How three friends took down a terrorist on a train

Alek Skarlatos, Anthony Sadler and Spencer Stone. Photo / Getty Images
Alek Skarlatos, Anthony Sadler and Spencer Stone. Photo / Getty Images

On board the 15:17, Alek looks out the window from his first-class seat as the last of the Netherlands passes by. He's bored, and a little antsy. He's eager to squeeze the last bit of fun out of this trip because now that his tour in Afghanistan is over, the most interesting part of his life is over too, and that turned out to not even be very interesting.

All he's had is a few weeks in Europe, and then in a week or two he'll be back in Oregon, working at Costco, taking night classes at community college, sleepwalking toward some degree he doesn't care all that much about.

Spencer sleeps to his right, sealed into his own world by noise-cancelling headphones. Across the aisle, Anthony sleeps too.

Alek gazes out the window at rolling fields, burnt straw-brown by late summer heat. He looks down at his phone, just in time to see the pulsing blue dot cross the line. We're in Belgium! he thinks.

The train slows. People rise, people reach for their bags, a sea swell of arms and leather and canvas. Spencer and Anthony don't stir. Alek watches absently as passengers get off, passengers get on.

Brussels. He takes a picture of the station. He decides it's boring. Then, out of corner of his eye, a person on the platform catches his attention.

A curl of blond hair, a confident walk: the attractive train attendant he flirted with earlier, leaving the train. No!

Alek looks around and sees more people in uniforms leaving.

Crew change, he thinks. Damn, she's gone.

He does not see that as she walks away, a North African man passes going in the opposite direction, approaching the train.

The man crosses the platform, angling just out of Alek's field of vision, and boards behind Alek. He has enough firepower to kill nearly everyone on board.

Alek takes pictures as the train pulls out of the station. He thinks about waking up Spencer. He wishes something would happen. He tracks on his phone how far they are from Paris.

He looks out the window, watches more countryside pass by. He messages the girl in Germany. He messages a friend from his deployment. He messages a girl in Oregon. He looks out the window some more.

Alek hears luggage dropping off a shelf behind him. Something with a weighted base, because the sound is extremely loud and he hears a tremendous cascade of broken glass.

Before he can turn around, a man in uniform blows past his vision at a full sprint, and without thinking, Alek falls to a crouch and turns in the foot space, looking back through the gap between the seats where he can see, swaying in and out of his narrow alley of vision, like some kind of spectre moving through a nightmare, a shirtless man with a machine gun, walking slowly toward them.

Adrenaline hits. His vision narrows. The train evaporates around him and all that exists in the whole world is one man with a weapon 30 feet in front of him.

He thinks, Go - let's go, but means it only partly, feebly; a message to his friends next to him whom he can sense are now awake.

Then Spencer blurs across his vision and Alek realises he's sent his best friend to charge the gunman.

Another clear thought: that Spencer is defenceless, exposed, and alone.

Alek is standing over Spencer, who's in the aisle fighting the terrorist. Alek can't remember getting there; he doesn't remember running down the aisle.

He's kicking the gunman, trying to soften him for Spencer. He senses Anthony nearby, but he's concerned only with finding someplace soft on this man to hit. Spencer is moving wildly, trying to get around the man's back with a forehand over his neck, and then Spencer's left his feet, the two bodies flying across Alek's vision toward the window.

Alek can hear the pain of it, his best friend's head slamming the glass and blood staining the train window; his senses are crossed and confused, sounds and sights shading into one another, but through the daze he is acutely aware that Spencer does not have the chokehold he thinks he has.

Then that the man is pulling a pistol from somewhere, a Luger, raising it behind him so that the barrel is up under Spencer's chin. A spasm of energy - Alek grabs the man's hands, wrenches the weapon out and reverses it, holding it against the man's forehead. A clear signal in Spencer's eyes - do it.

Alek slides his finger over the trigger guard and prepares to do the unthinkable, but if this man isn't stopped he will kill my best friend.

Alek holds the pistol to the man's head and pulls the trigger.

The gun clicks. It is not loud.

The man is still alive.


The gun is empty. He chucks it and lunges for the AK-47, feels its reassuring weight in his hands. This weapon he knows is loaded.

When he points it at the gunman, the gunman has pulled out a blade and is starting to jab it backward at Spencer, but Spencer doesn't seem to see it, doesn't seem to know, or has just lost his senses, because Alek is watching his friend bleed and his friend is not letting go. Then Spencer sees what's happening.

"Shoot him," Spencer says.

"I'm trying!"

Alek puts the barrel of the machine gun right on the terrorist's head, right against his skin. And he knows he has no choice. He must kill this man so that this man does not kill Spencer, and maybe dozens of others. Alek pulls the trigger.

Nothing happens.

Alek is now angry, he starts jamming the slant break of the machine gun barrel into the man's head, jabbing as hard as he can.

But he is frustrated, the man is not still, and Alek isn't hitting his target. Every fibre in Alek's body wants to extinguish this man right now, but the muzzle slips off, misses the temple, and Alek drives it right into Spencer's eye. But he cannot stop, he is driving the weapon, putting all his weight into it, it is exploding out of his arms into the gunman's head.

Alek is trying to destroy him.

They are staring into each other's eyes.

After Alek strikes him five, six, seven times, the man's arms begin to slacken, his struggling is dialling down, the blade has fallen from his hand. Alek's best friend is covered in blood, but the man is beginning to lose consciousness, so Alek just watches his eyes begin to close.

Alek speaks to Spencer: "You don't have it, you don't have the choke in, you don't have it." Spencer adjusts; Alek's strikes have weakened the gunman enough that Spencer can shift around until he has a good chokehold, and Alek wills Spencer not to let go of the man's neck. Just to be sure. Spencer holds it. A train employee comes running into the frame, steps in front of Alek, and begins slapping the gunman in the face.

"Okay, he's unconscious, you can stop choking him."

As Spencer drags the terrorist to the floor, Alek sees the long-haired man on the ground gushing blood.

Alek thinks the man might die if he doesn't get help, but there are other tasks that need to be performed. Alek quickly establishes a division of labour. "Spencer," he hears himself saying, "go get that guy." He points to the bleeding man. Maybe he just looks at the man.

Spencer puts his hands in the man's neck as if Alek could direct them there just by looking.

The bleeding stops.

The British man has a necktie in his hands and is binding the terrorist's legs and hands behind him. The British man has gotten hold of some kind of cable too, and has the loose ends in his teeth, pulling them tighter.

Alek can focus on his next task.

He picks up the machine gun again, cocks it, puts a new bullet in the chamber, extends the butt stock so he will have better control of the weapon, and goes back to make sure no one else is hit, and that there are no other terrorists on the train.

Alek starts moving back through the train.

He moves into the next train car, following the terrorist's path in reverse.

He walks through carriage thirteen: empty. The cafe car: empty.

He registers the detritus of fleeing commuters: open laptops, cell phones, iPads, books.

Another empty car, then another.

Then, in the last two cars, a site that nearly bowls him over. Every single person huddled together, hundreds of them.

For the first time, the gravity of it strikes him. All these people.

If that man hadn't been stopped in the front - if we hadn't stopped him - and he'd made it back here with all that ammo, to all these people, confined in one small place with no way to escape ...

This is an edited extract from The 15:17 to Paris: The True Story of a Terrorist, a Train, and Three Friends Who Became Heroes by Anthony Sadler, Alek Skarlatos, Spencer Stone and Jeffrey E. Stern. Published by Text Publishing, 29 August 2016.

- Daily Mail

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