Three Americans who are recognized as international heroes for saving hundreds of people from a terrorist attack on a commuter train en route to Paris detailed events they said were divinely orchestrated by God to prepare them to take action that fateful day.
On Aug. 21, 2015, friends Anthony Sadler, National Guardsman Alek Skarlatos and former U.S. Air Force Airman First Class Spencer Stone were vacationing in Europe and on a train traveling from Amsterdam to Paris when they managed to disarm Moroccan jihadist Ayoub El Khazzan, who was brandishing an AK-47 and a pistol.
El Khazzan had already wounded one passenger and attempted to shoot Stone, who was charging toward him, but fortunately the gun didn't fire because it was loaded with a faulty bullet.
"The 15:17 to Paris," directed by legendary filmmaker Clint Eastwood, is in theaters nationwide and showcases the faith and courage of these three ordinary men whose extraordinary acts of heroism saved over 500 lives.
To better understand their story and why they believe God played such a big role in thwarting the attempted terrorist attack, we have to first take a look back at their upbringing and the paths they took.
Sadler, Skarlatos and Stone met as children when they attended the same Christian school. Each one of the boys attended church regularly and Christianity played a significant role in shaping their lives.
"It's pretty essential to the story," Skarlatos told The Christian Post of their faith and the role it played in their survival. "If you look at the odds of everything that happened and how close we came to dying on so many different occasions, it's too coincidental. It was too astronomical for it to be just chance. It had to be God looking out for us. And by [the movie] showing how we were raised — that was just all part of the story."
1. Choosing different career paths
Although they were close growing up, the three parted ways in high school and college to pursue different life goals that they now say prepared them to handle all that would take place years later on that trip to Paris.
Stone would go on to learn Jujitsu, which would be instrumental in helping him subdue the terrorist. He was also unable to have his preferred job in the military and was trained as a medic instead. What he would go on to learn in the Air Force made all the difference on that train. Sadler went to college, and Skarlatos' infantry training with the National Guard helped him to secure the train and the weapons once the three men had knocked El Khazzan unconscious.
They all went off and did their own things in life, but fate brought them back together for that specific moment in 2015.
Stone recalled feeling as though God had them all learn different things in life so that every person needed in that moment was present on the train.
2. Being at the right place at the right time
Another moment of providence would be their decision to leave Amsterdam a day early and head to Paris. They had thought about staying in Amsterdam another day but didn't. Furthermore, once they boarded the train they switched seats from coach to first class, which put them in the train car where they would encounter the assailant.
"Never did we anticipate this, from going on this trip together to being alive and the past two years [since]," Sadler told CP.
Stone commented, "Nothing even close to as huge as this has ever happened to any one of us."
While on the train, the men were awakened by the sound of glass shattering. They didn't know it at the time, but the sound they heard was a shot fired by El Khazzan as 51-year-old Armenian-American professor Mark Moogalian grabbed the AK-47 away from him.
When El Khazzani boarded the train in Brussels, he was carrying a bag containing a 9mm Lugar pistol, a knife, a hammer, a bottle of gasoline, an AK-47, and 270 rounds of ammunition.
Khazzani was already on the authorities watch list for supporting Islamic terrorism and attending a radical mosque.
Another divine moment that saved Stone's and Skarlatos' lives was when El Khazzani dropped his handgun magazine after he shot Moogalian.
As he entered the train car where the three friends were sitting, the men had to act fast.
Stone charged at him and the battle commenced as both men were face to face. Stone said he had never felt more calm in his life than at that moment.
Something greater made him stand up and gave him the speed he never had before, he said. At that moment, El Khazzani pointed the AK-47 directly at him and shot the weapon but nothing came out due to a very rare, faulty bullet.
"The gun was functioning fine, but it was a faulty bullet," Skarlatos explained to CP. "And then when he shot Mark with the handgun he must have dropped the magazine out of the gun and he used the only bullet to shoot him with. So when he tried to shoot me there was nothing in it."
"My brother's a cop, he shoots thousands of rounds, and I've shot guns before and never had a faulty bullet," Skarlatos said.
"That's just one thing too, when people see the movie, it does a good job at laying out all the weird coincidences and plan by God that led us there. In hindsight, looking back on our lives, it seems like we were preparing our whole entire lives for that moment. There's no denying it."
Stone chimed in, saying: "There's not a lot of time to really think and it's not like we looked down the aisle at the guy and thought, 'Hey, we can be a hero and save everyone.' At the end of the day it was almost a selfish decision. We just didn't want to die, and we saw an opportunity to do something good and we just took it. We didn't realize until after the fact that, 'Oh wow, we just saved this whole entire train of people.'"
Once the struggle was over, Stone realized he had been slashed several times by a box cutter that El Khazzani was wielding. Nonetheless, the three men were able to knock him unconscious and then Skarlatos secured the train and searched for any further threats.
4. Warrior to healer
A bloody Stone then noticed that Moogalian was bleeding out from his carotid artery on the side of his neck. It was in that moment that his first aid and medical training in the Air Force enabled him to help save a life.
Stone proceeded to stick his finger in Moogalian's carotid artery in his neck and held his vein in place until medical assistance arrived.
5. International heroes
When it was all over, the three men were recognized as international heroes. They were recognized by former U.S. Ambassador to France Jane D. Hartley for their "actions in saving countless lives," and by former U.S. President Barack Obama with a ceremony held at The Pentagon to honor the three. Former French President Francois Hollande also awarded the three Americans, along with Briton Chris Norman, with the Legion of Honor, the highest French order for military and civil merits.
Moogalian, the first passenger to tackle the gunman during the terrorist attack, was also awarded the Legion of Honor by Hollande. Moogalian has dual citizenship in both France and the United States.
"It was pretty crazy when we got home. I think for all of us, especially for me, I didn't really realize how big of a story it was in the United States," Skarlatos recalled. "I could understand how the French would think it was a big story, but I didn't think it would be picked up in the states as much. When we got home, I was just blown away by how many people were interested in our story. And from then on it was pretty much interviews and TV shows, and we've honestly had the best life ever since."
In 2016, they teamed up once again to write a memoir on their 2015 experience under the publisher Perseus Books Group. Never did they expect their gripping true story would then be selected by Eastwood as a film project.
6. Heroes to movie stars
Eastwood decided to ask Sadler, Skarlatos and Stone to star in the film, "The 15:17 to Paris," as themselves. This made it possible for them to share their inspiring story of faith on an even larger platform and become Hollywood actors while they were at it.
"He wanted to tell our story accurately. He didn't want to Hollywood it up and he didn't want anything in the story that didn't actually happen," Sadler told CP. "Us not being actors before that made it easy for us, because he just kept telling us to do what we did. So it was essential, if you're going to tell a story about our lives, to have the faith element in there because it was important throughout our lives and important that day."
Stone noted, "Clint is not overly religious himself, which is no secret, but he definitely knows that after hearing the story and all of the circumstance that went on, he knows that something was looking out for us. That was pretty interesting just to hear him say that."
"Clint Eastwood is a fantastic director," Skarlatos said in agreement, "and being able to be such a part of the process and having a lot of say of how accurate things were made us feel important through the whole thing."
7. There's a hero in everyone
All the research done for the movie by the filmmakers actually helped clarify a lot of things that happened on the train for the three friends. They were also happy to be reunited on set with some of the passengers who were on the train with them during the terrorist attack.
"Not only did we play ourselves but Moogalian and his wife, Isabelle Risacher Moogalian, did as well. Chris Norman, the medical team, police, and train employees will also be in the film," Stone said. "A lot of times the media will give all the credit to us but in reality, there were other people there who helped. Mark took a bullet for us."
When all is said and done, and their story is immortalized forever on the silver screen, the men just hope their lives will serve as an inspiration to others.
"We were just ordinary guys and we've never seen anything traumatic like that before," Sadler said. "But we were put in an extraordinary situation. We want people to take away from the film that whatever obstacles they're facing, they're capable of doing the extraordinary as well."
Skarlatos advised, "If anybody is ever in a situation like that, just to do anything positive. Call 911, just do anything to help somebody out."
Hollywood actors Judy Greer, Tony Hale and Jenna Fischer also star in "The 15:17 to Paris."
Eastwood ("Sully," "American Sniper") directed and produced the Warner Bros. film which hits theaters nationwide Feb. 9.