LILLE, France — A day ago he was just another tourist on a train. By Saturday, U.S. Airman First Class Spencer Stone was recovering from knife wounds in a hospital in France, being thanked for foiling what the French government called an attempted terrorist attack.
Stone was one of three young American friends who helped overpower a Kalashnikov-toting suspected Islamist militant on a high speed train heading for Paris from Amsterdam.
Among the other heroes of the night-time drama was a Frenchman on his way to the toilet who was first to tackle the assailant as he entered the carriage, and a 62 year-old Briton who still had blood spattered over his shirt as he spoke to journalists on Friday night.
But it may have been Stone, of Lajes Air Base, Azores, who took the biggest risk.
"He was the first one to jump on him, he's the one who got cut up ... none of us are injured but Spencer took a few injuries and he just had no fear," 23-year-old student Anthony Sadler, said in an interview.
"That's our friend so once we saw him go we had to go and join him ... we couldn't have just left everybody die like that. It was a crazy situation."
Sadler said the attacker "didn't stand a chance... He didn't say anything. He was just telling us to give back his gun: 'Give me back my gun! Give me back my gun!'" Sadler said in a BFMTV interview.
Sadler said everything happened very fast as the attacker, armed with an automatic pistol and a box cutter as well as the AK-47 assault rifle, appeared to try to clear his weapon which seemed to be jammed.
One passenger was hit by a bullet, and was in a serious but stable condition, authorities said. Stone was due to be released from hospital later on Saturday.
"I woke up to basically people ducking and then I was, like, 'Why is everybody ducking?' and then, when I turned round to look, he, the gunman, had just entered the car with the AK and then I was, like: 'This is really happening'," Sadler said.
"We just all ran back there and we tried to do whatever we could to try and beat him up so he didn't shoot anybody. He pulled out a box cutter and cut Spencer a couple of times but beside that we just tried to do whatever we could."
The third member of the group, 22-year-old National Guardsman Alek Skarlatos, said the vacation was partly to celebrate his return from a tour of duty in Afghanistan.
"I saw a guy entering the train with an AK (Kalashnikov rifle) and a handgun and I just looked over at Spencer and said 'Let's go, go'," Skarlatos said in a Skype interview shown on France 24 and other TV stations.
"(Spencer) jumped up and I followed behind him by about three seconds. Spencer got to the guy first, grabbed the guy by the neck, and I got the handgun away from the guy and threw it and then I grabbed the AK that was at his feet."
"Spencer ran a good 10 meters to get to the guy, and we didn't know that his gun wasn't working or anything like that," Skarlatos said in a separate interview shown on France's BFMTV and other stations.
"Spencer just ran anyway and if anyone would've gotten shot, it would've been Spencer for sure."
French Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve, President Francois Hollande and U.S. President Barack Obama hailed the passengers as heroes.
Cazeneuve said the attacker's identity was not confirmed, but that if he was telling the truth to his interrogators, he was a 26-year-old of Moroccan nationality identified as dangerous and with connections to Islamist militants.
Briton Chris Norman, 62, who helped the Americans overpower the gunman, said: "Without Spencer we'd all be dead."
"I came in at the end of it all and I guess just helped to get the guy under control," Norman said. "We ended up by tying him up.
"During the process, the guy actually pulled out a cutter and started cutting Spencer. He cut Spencer behind the neck. He nearly cut his thumb off. Spencer held him. We eventually got him under control."
"It could have been a real carnage, no question about that," said Norman.
French movie actor Jean-Hugues Anglade, star of international hits Betty Blue and Nikita, who was also on the train, was quoted as saying by BFMTV: "We were stuck in the wrong place with the right people. It's miraculous."
Reuters and AFP contributed to this report.
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