PARIS - French President Francois Hollande on Monday bestowed the Legion of Honor, France's highest decoration, on a Briton and three Americans who subdued a heavily armed gunman aboard a high-speed train on Friday.
At a ceremony in Paris, Hollande pinned medals on the chests of Briton Chris Norman and Americans Spencer Stone, Alek Skarlatos and Anthony Sadler. He said their actions last week in the face of terror provided "a message of courage, solidarity and hope."
"A terrorist decided to commit an act. He had enough weapons and ammunition to carry out a real carnage, and that's what he would have done if you hadn't tackled him at a risk to your own lives," Hollande said.
Hollande said the two Americans who first tackled the gunman were soldiers, ?but on Friday you were simply passengers. You behaved as soldiers but also as responsible men.?
Hollande also saluted the other passengers who helped raise the alarm and subdue gunman Ayoub El-Khazzani, who the president described as a terrorist. That included a French passenger and a Franco-American who has been hospitalized for his wounds. The French citizen was the first to discover the gunman near a restroom as the train sped toward Paris.They will receive the Legion of Honor in a separate ceremony.
Speaking together to the media for the first time Sunday, the three Americans described pummelling Khazzani to the ground, saying basic survival instinct drove their actions.
Spencer Stone, a U.S. Air Force airman who was wounded in the attack, said he thought of his own survival as well as everyone else's on the train as he, Skarlatos and Sadler bolted from their seats to take down the suspect.
Skarlatos, a member of the National Guard who recently served in Iraq, said the trio and Norman acted on "gut instinct" to overpower the gunman. Sadler said the gunman never said a word before launching his attack.
The Americans, casual in vacation-style polo shirts and khakis against the backdrop of the highly formal presidential palace, appeared slightly overwhelmed as they received France's highest honor.
His arm in a sling and his eye bruised, Stone, 23, has said he was coming out of a deep sleep when the gunman appeared.
Skarlatos "just hit me on the shoulder and said, 'Let's go,'" Stone recalled.
In reconstructing the faceoff, authorities found the gunman had already shot one person in an adjacent car before entering the compartment where the Americans and the Briton were seated.
"In terms of crisis like that, I would want it to be learned that basically to do something. Hiding or sitting back is not going to accomplish anything. And the gunman would have been successful had my friend Spencer had not gotten up," Sadler said.
Briton describes attack
Norman, who lives in France, said the gunman walked into his railway car carrying a Kalashnikov assault rifle, a handgun and a box cutter knife. When the gunman began shouting at the train passengers, Norman said his first instinct was to duck for cover.
"Then I heard one of the Americans shout, 'Go get him!' and the other said something like, 'Don't you do that, buddy!' and they charged him," Norman said, adding that the attacker "put up quite a battle."
"I helped hold his arms," Norman said, and the Americans hog-tied the Moroccan, securing his wrists behind his back and lashing them to his ankles with the Briton's necktie.
Norman, speaking in French after receiving the medal, said it was less a question of heroism than survival.
"I hope this doesn't happen to you, but I ask you to really think: 'OK, what will I do if this happens? Am I going to simply stand still or am I going to try to be active if the situation presents itself?'" he said.
Interrogation of suspect
French counterterrorism officials continue to question Khazzani, a Moroccan in his mid-twenties known to intelligence services in three countries for links to radical Islam and who may have traveled to Syria.
He boarded the train in Brussels shortly before the attack.
Khezzani's lawyer, Sophie David, told Le Monde newspaper the gunman is ill-educated and emaciated. She said he'd told her he had spent the past six months traveling among Belgium, Germany and Austria, as well as France and Andorra. David maintained that Khazzani is "dumbfounded" by the terrorism allegations and said her client only intended to rob passengers.