For scared French train pas­sen­gers, the op­tions were fight, flight or freeze


The foiled at­tack on a crowded Paris-Am­s­ter­dam train pro­voked a range of re­ac­tions from pas­sen­gers, but the mil­i­tary train­ing of two young Amer­i­cans who tack­led the gun­man proved decisive, psy­chi­a­trists say.

When a heav­ily armed man pro­duced an AK-47 in the aisle of the packed train on Fri­day, it drew three kinds of re­sponses: shock, at­tempts to save one’s own skin and fi­nally rare ac­tion that saw the at­tacker be­ing over­pow­ered and a blood­bath al­most cer­tainly be­ing averted.

French psy­chol­o­gist and crim­i­nol­o­gist Jean-Pierre Bouchard said such sit­u­a­tions had an “ef­fect of to­tal sur­prise.”

“Those who wit­ness and com­pre­hend what’s hap­pen­ing un­dergo enor­mous stress. They feel an im­mi­nent dan­ger of death,” he said.

“Some peo­ple are go­ing to be shocked and won’t be able to do much. Oth­ers are go­ing to try to save their own skins by show­ing them­selves as lit­tle as pos­si­ble, and hid­ing. And some peo­ple are go­ing to try to get away, but in this case it was an en­closed space,” he said.

The sus­pect, 25-year-old Moroccan Ay­oub El Khaz­zani, al­legedly boarded the Thalys train in Brus­sels car­ry­ing two guns, am­mu­ni­tion and a blade in his lug­gage.

He first wounded a FrenchAmer­i­can trav­eler in his 50s, but he was pre­vented from al­most cer­tainly caus­ing car­nage by two off-duty U.S. ser­vice­men and their friend An­thony Sadler, who leaped on him, grabbed his AK-47 gun and re­strained him even as he lunged at them with a box-cut­ter.

A Bri­tish pas­sen­ger then helped them tie up the gun­man.

One of the Amer­i­can ser­vice­men, Na­tional Guards­man Alek Skar­latos, has said the sus­pect did not ap­pear to have had weapons train­ing.

Spencer Stone, who serves in the U.S. Air Force, reached Khaz­zani first and was slashed in the neck and on the eye­brow and al­most had his thumb sliced off with the box-cut­ter.

“For­tu­nately there were peo­ple who saw the same dan­ger but in­stead of be­ing stunned or hid­ing went on to take ac­tion,” Bouchard said.

“Here we had young Amer­i­can sol­diers, who were trained and who had pro­fes­sional skills, and who re­acted to­gether,” he said.

Any­one who has al­ready seen or been trained to deal with such a sit­u­a­tion au­to­mat­i­cally has a dif­fer­ent re­ac­tion when such an in­ci­dent oc­curs, Bouchard said.

Another psy­chi­a­trist, Ni­cole Gar­ret-Gloan­nec, said the Amer­i­can ser­vice­men “had all the tools to al­low them to re­act in an ap­pro­pri­ate way.”

Quite apart from their train­ing, they sim­ply “thought faster” about what was hap­pen­ing on the train, pro­cess­ing what was hap­pen­ing and de­cid­ing to take ac­tion.

“Given the weapons he had, they re­al­ized that they all were all goners.”

The course of ac­tion they rapidly de­cided on “was the only way, and the best way, to save their lives,” she said.

U.S. Pres­i­dent Barack Obama has hailed the “ex­tra­or­di­nary brav­ery” of the three Amer­i­cans, who will re­ceive France’s high­est honor, the Le­gion d’Hon­neur, from Pres­i­dent Fran­cois Hol­lande on Mon­day.

Ex­perts said the re­ac­tion of the 62-year-old Bri­tish busi­ness­man Chris Nor­man, who will also be hon­ored by France for as­sist­ing the Amer­i­cans, was fas­ci­nat­ing be­cause he had no mil­i­tary train­ing.

“Chris Nor­man is in­ter­est­ing be­cause he has ad­mit­ted that at first he thought of hid­ing,” Gar­ret-Gloan­nec said.

But when he re­al­ized that oth­ers had sprung into ac­tion, he came to their aid.

“He was an or­di­nary hu­man be­ing. He had no train­ing, but he wanted to take part. He is coura­geous.”

The first pas­sen­ger on the train to con­front the gun­man was a 28-yearold French­man who worked in a bank in the Nether­lands. He at­tempted to grab his gun as the sus­pect came out of a toi­let cu­bi­cle.

He has so far cho­sen to re­main anony­mous.

Michele Vitry, a clin­i­cal psy­chol­o­gist at­tached to the Paris Ap­peals Court, said: “It would be in­ter­est­ing to know if he does mar­tial arts, or if he had per­sonal at­tributes that al­lowed him to re­act with­out fear.”

Not ev­ery­one’s re­ac­tion was as heroic.

French ac­tor Jean-Hugues Anglade, star of the films “Betty Blue” and “Nikita” and a pas­sen­ger on the train, has strongly crit­i­cized two of the staff in the res­tau­rant car for flee­ing to­ward the lo­co­mo­tive with­out try­ing to help any­one.

But in the view of Gar­ret-Gloan­nec, they had “no train­ing in how to re­act to this type of sit­u­a­tion and they have no re­spon­si­bil­ity to­wards the pas­sen­gers.”

“Jean-Hugues Anglade also wanted to save him­self and save those around him and that is com­pletely un­der­stand­able.”

Amer­i­can stu­dent Sadler ap­pealed Sun­day to ev­ery­one to act as he and his friends had done if con­fronted with a sim­i­lar sit­u­a­tion.

“The gun­man would have been suc­cess­ful if my friend Spencer had not got­ten up. I want that les­son to be learned. In times of terror like that ... please do some­thing. Don’t just stand by and watch,” he told a press con­fer­ence in Paris.

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