A gunshot rang out in the train car, followed by the sound of breaking glass. Then someone screamed. When U.S. airman Spencer Stone, then 23, turned around in his seat, he had no doubt what was unfolding. A lanky man, shirtless and wearing a backpack over his chest, was standing in the rear of the car, fumbling to load a Kalashnikov. “It was so obvious,” Stone says. “This is a terrorist, and he’s going to kill everyone here.”
Raised in the years following 9/11 and now on active duty, Stone had many times contemplated what he might do if ever confronted by terrorists, and he’d committed to a plan: “I’d just get up and go beat that guy’s ass.” So when he saw the man in the back of the train, he didn’t hesitate to act: “It was either sit here and get shot or get up and try to do something.”
He took off down the aisle.
Until that point, the train ride from Amsterdam to Paris that August evening in 2015 had been unremarkable; in fact, Stone had been asleep until the commotion woke him. He was traveling with Anthony Sadler and Alek Skarlatos, whom he’d known since middle school back home in Sacramento, California. At the time, Stone was stationed in Portugal with the Air Force, and Skarlatos had just completed a deployment in Afghanistan with the National Guard; together, they’d arranged to meet Sadler, a college senior, for a European vacation. Before the gunman entered the train car, the most intense experience the friends had shared was the airsoft battles they waged as kids. What they did next, though, would make international news, as well as inspire Clint Eastwood’s new film, The 15:17 to Paris, in theaters on February 9.
Sprinting down the aisle, Stone knew full well that at any moment the gunman could level the rifle at him, and then that would be it. Game over. But when the attacker did aim at Stone, a shot never followed. Stone slammed into the man, dropping a knee and lowering his head, just like in football. The pair crashed to the floor. “I was just, like, ‘Oh my God, I’m still alive. We have a chance,’ ” Stone says. “I was completely shocked.” The bullet was faulty, he later learned.
Stone has relived the moment he bounded down the aisle many times in the two years since the attack. And now he, Sadler, and Skarlatos play themselves in the upcoming film about the incident, a bold decision by Eastwood, given they had zero acting experience. “I mean, Clint thought we could do it, so that definitely gave us the confidence to even say yes,” Skarlatos says. Eastwood even discouraged them from taking acting classes beforehand. “You don’t want to do that, because then it will look like you’re acting,” Skarlatos recalls him saying. Stone says he enjoyed the filming process but acknowledges that re-creating what happened was strange. “I’d have mini-flashbacks because it felt so real,” he says.
On the train that evening, Skarlatos and Sadler hardly had time to react before Stone took off, and they quickly followed behind him. “Right when I got there, the terrorist pulls out a handgun,” Skarlatos says. He pried the gun from the man’s hand and also grabbed the Kalashnikov. Then, Stone, continuing to struggle with the attacker, heard Skarlatos cry out: “He’s got a knife! He’s got a knife!”
It was actually a box cutter, and he slashed at Stone, holding him from behind. “He was trying to slit my throat and put two long slashes on the back of my neck,” Stone says. The attacker sliced his thumb to the bone, nearly taking it off. But with all the adrenaline, Stone hardly noticed: “I was just trying to kill him. It was, Either he’s going to die, or I am.”
Sadler and Skarlatos began to beat the attacker, but he broke loose from Stone. “He was trying to fight for his life because he didn’t expect anybody to get up, either,” Sadler says.
The friends caught a break when the attacker dropped the blade. They slammed him against a table. “I put the handgun against his head, and I’m, like, ‘Stop resisting, stop resisting,’ ” Skarlatos says. “I pulled the trigger, but the gun didn’t go off.” It was empty; the magazine had likely fallen out during the initial struggle. Stone was able to put the man in a good choke hold, however, and Skarlatos hit him until he fell unconscious.
It was only then that the friends noticed a Frenchman named Mark Moogalian had been wounded in the neck a few feet away and was spewing blood across the aisle. He’d been shot when the attacker first entered the train car. A paramedic, Stone stuck his fingers in Moogalian’s neck and stopped the bleeding. But even then, with the next train stop still a half-hour away, he doubted Moogalian would make it. “I asked him if he wanted to say a prayer, because he had lost so much blood,” Stone says.
Moogalian did survive, however, and the friends’ heroism saved not just him but many more passengers that day. The attacker was later identified as 25-year-old Ayoub el-Khazzani and was linked to a Belgian terror cell. News of their bravery catapulted the three friends from typical 20-somethings to national heroes, and now to movie stars.
On his decision to make The 15:17 to Paris, Eastwood says he admired how Stone, Sadler, and Skarlatos were just three regular guys who took remarkable action when confronted by evil. He was also drawn to their enthusiasm, he says, which is why he chose to cast them in the film. “We saw a number of very good actors for the job, but I kept looking at the faces of these boys, and it struck me that it could be an interesting experiment,” he says.
After the film hits theaters, Stone, for one, hopes to continue acting. “It was the funnest two months of my life, so if I could do that the rest of my life, I’m cool with it,” he says. The experience has not been without difficulties, though. It’s bizarre, Stone says, knowing that, at still such a young age, he’ll likely never top what he did on the train that day. “Sometimes it kind of feels like we did the best thing that we’ll probably ever do,” he says. “Now I’m just trying to figure out ways to make sure I’m not wasting the life that we’ve been given, because we all know that these attacks happen all the time and usually not with this result.”