by ALICIA POWE
WASHINGTON – Armed with an AK-47, a pistol, a box cutter, 270 rounds of ammunition and a bottle of gasoline during a high-speed railway ride, Ayoub el-Khazzani’s mission was clear: slaughter every passenger on a crowded train transporting more than 500 lives.
El-Khazzani, an Islamic jihadist, shot and slashed passengers with a knife until he encountered something he hadn’t anticipated – three brave Americans who refused to give in to fear.
A gunshot cracked in the air like thunder, followed by the sound of shattering glass.
With no time to waste, and amid screams and panic, U.S. Air Force Staff Sgt. Spencer Stone, U.S. Army National Guard Spc. Alek Skarlatos and Anthony Sadler, a California State University student, tore down the aisle.
They sprinted toward the gunman, a 26-year-old Moroccan national and alleged ISIS recruit, as he pointed his weapon at them.
Knowing that at any moment, the jihadist could unleash his firepower and execute him on the spot, Stone tackled El-Khazzani.
Skarlatos wrestled the attacker’s weapon from him. But the jihadist pulled out a box cutter and began slashing Stone.
All three men fought El-Khazzani, disarmed him and rendered the assailant unconscious – saving many innocent lives in a courageous act that would leave much of America bursting with pride.
Stone, Skarlatos and Sadler then tended to other injured passengers on the train until paramedics and police arrived.
The three young men made international news for their heroic efforts.
Now Hollywood director Clint Eastwood is retelling their story in the new film “The 15:17 to Paris.” Eastwood enlisted the three heroes to play themselves in the film.
While some might say luck was on their side, the three men who thwarted the attack told WND they believe God was the guiding force who gave them courage and protection on that fateful day.
“In the back of our minds, we knew that we had always in our lives God’s hand of protection on us,” Sadler explained in an exclusive interview with WND.
It’s in those moments of decision that our destiny is shaped, he said.
“You have a choice to either act or don’t, the choice to either go one way or the other way,” Sadler said. “Luckily, we made the right decision. I think that was the decision we were supposed to make because He put us there for a reason.”
Stone told WND: “We definitely took a leap of faith – getting up out of our seats. We didn’t know if we were going to make it through or not. You are going 200 miles on a train in the middle of nowhere, this guy’s got an automatic weapon, we saw an opportunity and we just took it.”
There was another factor that contributed to their success: enduring friendship. The three men have been friends since they attended middle school in California together. Sadler said the three share a lifetime of trust, support and loyalty.
“There’s two reasons we got up – the faith is an aspect that is twofold,” he said, “Having the faith in God to get up in the first place, and there’s faith in each other as friends, just being lifelong friends.”
After the three hogtied the attacker using a necktie, Stone, a trained paramedic, noticed a nearby passenger, Mark Moogalian, a 51-year-old professor who was bleeding profusely from the neck and spewing blood across the aisle.
Earlier, Moogalian had also tackled El-Khazzani and managed to secure the AK-47. But the jihadist whipped out a pistol, shot Moogalian in the neck and retrieved the rifle before the three Americans arrived.
Stone stuck his fingers in Moogalian’s neck and stanched the bleeding.
The chances of everything lining up the way it did during the Aug. 21, 2015 attack – a terrorist crossing paths with veterans who have military and medical training that would prove critical – are one in a million, according to Skarlatos, a member of the Oregon Army National Guard’s 41st Infantry Brigade Combat team who had just finished a tour in Afghanistan before traveling to Europe to vacation with his two friends.
“Spencer’s training helped save Mark’s life and help him with first aid,” Skarlatos told WND. “My infantry training prepared me for this situation, to worry about security, how to handle weapons and things like that.”
He continued: “If you look at the statistics of everything that happened, just the odds of being in a terrorist attack are astronomical. The odds of surviving it and being the ones who stopped it, and the odds of our exact situation happening to us, are too astronomical to believe that it was just purely chance, especially when you look at like the fact that we were thinking about staying in Amsterdam another day and we didn’t.
“It’s honestly hard for even us to remember all the different circumstances that put us there in that exact time and place. But to me, it’s just too coincidental to be chance. I really think God had a hand in it. We were vessels, being used.”
Eastwood presented Sadler, Skarlatos and Stone with the Hero Award at the June 2016 Guys Choice Awards in June after they had finished writing a book about the terror attack.
“We were getting ready to publish the book, and we knew we were going to go back in the green room and talk with him,” Spencer said. “We thought, ‘This is right up his ally, the real-life stories that he does as a director. We have to say something to him.’ We go back there and we said jokingly, ‘Hey, we are writing a book right now. You should make it into a movie.’ He said, ‘Here’s my address. Send me the book, and I’ll tell you what I think.’”
The veteran director and producer did not initially respond to the men’s proposal. But Stone didn’t give up.
“I sent him a book. A few months went by, and I didn’t hear from him,” Stone recalled. “I think I messed up the address. Then I sent him a book with a letter, and I got the address right. And I got a call from him a few days later. He said he loved the story, and he was going to even put a project he was currently working on hold to pick up our story.”
After spending time with the three friends, Eastwood asked them one day, “Do you guys think you could play yourselves?”
He then cast not only the three heroes but also many other people who were actually on the scene when the terrorist attack was thwarted.
“We got the man who was shot and his wife, all the first responders, some of the people in the finale are back; it was their experience,” Eastwood explained in a preview of the film. “I knew what I wanted to shoot, but the adventure was real.”
While making the movie was like reliving the traumatic event over and over again, it was also cathartic, the men said.
“Of course, we are fans of Clint Eastwood. I’ve seen all of his movies. We did it all over again, but it was honestly better – fun this time – especially on the train, obviously,” Spencer said.
While many would see the train attack as a deeply traumatizing experience for the men, Sadler said the outcome was overwhelmingly positive
“A lot of people think the situation was troubling for us, but we are young guys and it’s actually an extremely positive thing that it’s blossomed into,” Sadler told WND. “Nobody lost their lives, not even the terrorists.
“We look back on it as a memory that we’re proud of – to be able to have saved people. [The experience] is not really something that bothers us or keeps us up at night.”
The movie “The 15:17 to Paris” is set for release Feb. 9. It will show the world how ordinary people are capable of doing the extraordinary, Sadler said.
“We are ordinary guys. People often think, ‘Because they are in the military, that’s why they did it.’ Even in Spencer and Aleks’ military experience, they’ve never seen anything like this before,” he said. “I am not in the military. I have never seen anything like this before. The movie does a good job of showing how ordinary we are.
“We are three regular people. We were put in an extraordinary situation. That’s what we want people to take from the movie: If you find yourself in a situation where you have to overcome an obstacle, you are capable of the extraordinary also.”
In production notes from the movie obtained by WND, Eastwood said, “Whether it was a guardian angel riding on their shoulders or pure luck or something in between, whatever you believe, however you interpret things in life, these guys were meant to do this and to survive it.”
While “The 15:17 to Paris” recreates a heroic moment in recent history, Eastwood also believed that making the film and telling the story of these heroes was an opportunity to explore something more:
These are regular people, like the majority of us out there, who get the gift of life and do the best we can with it, and maybe we get lucky. That day, the stakes couldn’t have been higher, but these guys all ended up doing the right thing at the right time. They could have been very unlucky, but they took charge of their fate. It’s all about what fate hands you … and how you handle it.
This was a revered event in France and America, and it came along at a time when we’re asking ourselves how we would react under adversity. What these boys did was to show that the common man can not only have great instincts, but act on them. Sure, they were prepared in that they had some military and medical training, but they weren’t on a battlefield; they weren’t prepared for this. They just saw something happening and came together, one, two, three, and saved a lot of lives that way. If they can do it, so can we.
The highly anticipated drama marks Eastwood’s third director-producer partnership with Warner Bros., after his blockbuster hits 2016’s Oscar-nominated “Sully” and 2014’s “American Sniper.”
As WND reported, Eastwood fought with the Classification and Rating Administration for initially giving the film an “R” rating due to the train attack scene.
Eastwood protested, and it was revised to PG-13, which will allow more teens to see the movie.