By MARSHA MERCER
Three young Americans on vacation captivated the world last week when they risked their lives to save hundreds of train travelers in Europe from a terrorist attack.
“They are truly heroes,” said Jane Hartley, U.S. ambassador to France. “When most of us would run away, Spencer, Alek and Anthony ran into the line of fire, saying `Let’s go!’ Those words changed the fate of many.”
As we go about our ordinary days, celebrating the extraordinary acts of Spencer Stone, 23, Alek Skarlatos, 22, and Anthony Sadler, 23, a question arises: Would I do what they did?
“I hope I would,” my dentist said as he cleaned my teeth. Me too, although I hope never to find out.
Nobody wants to think what might have happened had the three buddies not been aboard that particular car on the high-speed train traveling from Amsterdam to Paris. The three acted instantly.
“It was either do something or die,” said Sadler, a student at Sacramento State University. The joyous news is that nobody died.
Skarlatos, a specialist in the Oregon National Guard just back from nine months in Afghanistan, spotted the shirtless guy with an AK-47 rifle strapped to his chest.
“Let’s go!” he said. The three tackled the heavily armed Moroccan Ayoub El Khazzani, 25, who viciously slashed Stone, an airman first class in the U.S. Air Force, with a box cutter. British businessman Chris Norman, 62, an IT consultant, heard “Let’s go!” and joined the three Americans. He tied up El Khazzani.
Stone nearly lost his left thumb and suffered other wounds, but he still saved the life of Mark Moogalian, 51, a French-American professor at the Sorbonne. Moogalian, originally from Midlothian, Va., is also a hero.
Moments earlier, Moogalian tried to wrest the rifle from the terrorist and was shot in the neck. Bleeding profusely, he could have died but for Stone, an EMT who used his uninjured hand to apply pressure to Moogalian’s neck to stop the bleeding until help arrived.
“Let’s go!” reminds many Americans of other heroes. On Sept. 11, 2001, “Let’s roll!” was the rallying cry of Todd Beamer and other passengers on United Airlines Flight 93 who tried to storm the cockpit, where terrorists had taken over the plane, rather than allow the terrorists to fly it into the U.S. Capitol. The passengers sacrificed their lives to change the fate of many.
The American friends were just 9 or 10 years old on 9/11 and have grown up under the constant threat of terrorism. The military men said their training kicked in on the train.
“It was not really a conscious decision,” Skarlatos told reporters. “We just decided to act … It was gut instinct.”
French President Francois Hollande, who presented the Legion of Honor to the Americans and Norman, said: “We are still vulnerable. This is further evidence that we must prepare ourselves for more assaults, and thus we must protect ourselves.” Moogalian and a Frenchman who confronted the gunman will receive the honor later, authorities said.
Not only France needs to be watchful.
U.S. government reports have warned for years that America’s passenger rail system is vulnerable to terrorist attack. Whether Congress should pour billions into tightening passenger rail security and whether passengers would put up with the time and inconvenience required is open for debate.
The busiest U.S. train stations do have armed guards, plain-clothes officers who watch for suspicious behavior, random passenger and bag checks and bomb-sniffing dogs, but Amtrak carries about 32 million passengers a year to 500 destinations in 46 states. Every day, more than 86,000 passengers ride more than 300 Amtrak trains. Most stations have minimal security.
Three times as many passengers take the train as fly between Washington and New York. Between New York and Boston, trains carry more riders than all of the airlines combined, Amtrak says.
For the foreseeable future, it’s up to passengers to stay vigilant. “If you see something, say something” still applies. But in a rare, horrifying moment, ordinary people may have to do something extraordinary.
British businessman Norman, who lives in France and travels frequently, had thought ahead about the nightmare scenario.
“My position was, I’m not going to be the guy who dies sitting down,” he told CNN. “If you’re going to die, try to do something about it.”
© 2015 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.