By Elizabeth Pineau
French President Francois Hollande on Monday awarded France’s highest honour, the Legion d’honneur, to three US citizens and a Briton who helped disarm a machine gun-toting suspected Islamist militant on a train last week.
The award came a day after it was revealed that one of the Americans, Spencer Stone, also appeared to have saved the life of a fellow passenger.
“Faced with the evil called terrorism there is a good, that’s humanity. You are the incarnation of that,” he told the four men.
The suspect’s lawyer said on Sunday the man named by intelligence sources as Ayoub el Khazzani, 26, of Morocco, is “dumbfounded” at having been taken for an Islamist militant and says he only intended to rob people on board because he was hungry, his lawyer said on Sunday.
Stone, a 23-year-old airman travelling with two friends on the train from Amsterdam to Paris on Friday, told reporters on Sunday of how he plugged the blood-spurting wound of another passenger with his fingers after himself being injured by the attacker, identified by security sources as a suspected Islamist militant.
“I went over, saw that he was squirting blood out of the left or right side of his neck,” Stone, with a cut above his right eye and his left arm in a sling to protect his injured hand, said at a press conference alongside his friends, student Anthony Sadler, also 23, and National Guardsman Alek Skarlatos, 22.
“And I was going to use my shirt at first, but I realised that wasn’t going to work, so I just stuck two of my fingers in the hole, found what I thought to be the artery, pushed down and the bleeding stopped.” Stone held that position until paramedics arrived, he said.
The man whom Stone helped remains hospitalized. U.S. Ambassador to France Jane Hartley said at the news conference that he was “doing pretty well.”
Chris Norman, a 62-year-old British consultant who lives in France, was also decorated by Hollande on Monday.
Stone said another man, who is French and whose name has not been disclosed, “deserves a lot of the credit” because he was the first one to try to stop the gunman.
Stone thanked the doctors who reattached his thumb, which was almost severed by the gunman, who was armed with a box cutter, a pistol and a Kalashnikov AK-47 assault rifle.
The three Americans, who grew up together near Sacramento, California, were touring Europe, partly to celebrate Skarlatos’ return from a recent tour of duty in Afghanistan.
The trio said they had no choice but to react when they saw the gunman cocking his assault rifle. Stone said he choked him while Skarlatos hit him on the head with one of his firearms.
Stone’s and Skarlatos’ military training kicked in while they provided first aid and searched the train to make sure there were no other gunmen, they said.
They said the gunman was apparently untrained in firearms and that he could have used all his firepower to devastating effect if he had known more about weapons.
Skarlatos disputed a statement the gunman made, through a lawyer, that he just wanted to rob the train because he was hungry.
“It doesn’t take eight magazines to rob a train,” Skarlatos said. “The guy had a lot of ammo. His intentions seemed pretty clear.”