BRUSSELS —One of the Americans who prevented a bloodbath on a high-speed European train Friday serves in the Air Force. Another is in the Oregon National Guard. On Monday, the enlisted men became knights — of the Legion of Honor — along with two others who foiled an attacker, as French President François Hollande awarded them the country’s highest decoration.
In a solemn ceremony held in France’s glittering Elysee Palace, the seat of the presidency, Hollande said the four men had averted a catastrophe when they tackled and trussed a heavily armed man who had opened fire on the train.
The men have resisted being labeled as heroes, saying that they gave little thought to their actions until after the heat of the moment. At the ceremony, the trio of Americans, friends since childhood, were dressed modestly in polo shirts and khakis. But Hollande said their coolness under fire was a lesson to all of France — and the world.
“You have shown that in the face of terror, you can resist,” Hollande said before he pinned the ribbons on the men’s chests. “So you have given us a lesson of courage, of determination and therefore of hope.”
“There were over 500 passengers on that train. Ayoub el-Khazzani possessed over 300 bullets. And we realize now how close we were to a tragedy and a massacre,” Hollande said, formally identifying the suspect in the shooting for the first time, a Moroccan man just short of his 26th birthday.
The medal recipients included Airman 1st Class Spencer Stone of California; Army Spec. Alek Skarlatos, just returned from a deployment to Afghanistan; their childhood friend Anthony Sadler; and British businessman Chris Norman.
Hollande said he also intends to award the honor to Mark Moogalian, a dual French-American citizen who helped stop the gunman and was severely wounded, and a French citizen who was the first to try to disarm the shooter and has asked to remain anonymous.
Hollande pinned the red ribbons and five-pointed medal on each man’s chest, then kissed each on one cheek and then the other. The two servicemen plan to go with their families to Germany for further medical treatment, while Sadler plans to return home to California to start his senior year of college, they said Sunday.
Khazzani has said in police interrogations that he intended only to rob the train, not to commit a mass killing. But French and Belgian authorities are investigating his actions as a thwarted terrorist act, and Spanish authorities had flagged him for his ties to a militant Islamist mosque in Spain before he left the country in early 2014.
The case has raised tough questions about Europe’s security preparedness. Khazzani had been under watch in three countries because of his possible links to militancy. But he was able to get onto the high-speed train without any security checks. Europe’s high-speed rail network is a vital part of the continent’s vast train system, packed with passengers from all walks of life and transporting far more people than airplanes do.
But most trains require no identification, bag screening or metal detectors to board — and security experts say changing that would be a towering difficulty, given the thousands of people who stream through the system every hour.
On Sunday, in Stone’s first account of the events that nearly severed his thumb and left him with an eye injury, he gave a matter-of-fact description of the struggle.
“He seemed like he was ready to fight to the end. So were we,” Stone said.