PARIS — The three American friends who helped foil a mass shooting on a packed high-speed train on its way to Paris started the trip in a different car, they said Sunday, underlining how narrowly their triumph could have been a tragedy.
When they got on the train in Amsterdam, they could not find their first-class seats, so they sat in a nearby car, said Anthony Sadler, one of the three vacationing childhood friends who have been lauded as heroes by President Obama and French President François Hollande.
“We decided to get up because the WiFi wasn’t so good on that car,” Sadler said. “We were like, ‘We have a ticket to first class. We might as well go sit in first class.’ ”
About half an hour after the train pulled away from Amsterdam, they switched to the car where the shooter, a short time later, opened fire, he said.
Along with two other men, they tackled, then disarmed, a suspected Islamist militant who packed a trove of weaponry into his rucksack Friday.
The three men — friends since middle school in California — appeared together in public on Sunday for the first time since they overpowered and then trussed the shooter. One of the men, Airman 1st Class Spencer Stone, had his arm in a sling after an operation to reattach his thumb, which was nearly severed during the attack. All three looked exhausted and sported days-old beards. But they displayed some of the camaraderie that had bound them together since their teens, quietly finishing each other’s sentences when answering questions from reporters in a gilded hall inside the U.S. ambassador’s residence in Paris.
All three of them said they had barely had time to ponder what they had gone through — and that as the fighting unfolded over the course of just a few minutes, they barely thought at all.
“He seemed like he was ready to fight to the end. So were we,” Stone said, his right eye bloodshot and watering, his left hand heavily bandaged.
The third friend, Spec. Alek Skarlatos, who just returned from a deployment in Afghanistan, said that some of his training kicked in after the gunman was subdued, as he searched for more shooters and tried to provide security on the train.
French counterterrorism authorities on Sunday continued to interrogate the suspect, identified by security officials as Ayoub El-Khazzani, a Moroccan two weeks short of his 26th birthday. Khazzani denied any links to terrorism, saying that he had simply intended to rob people on the train, one of his lawyers said Sunday. He said that he had found his trove of arms — an AK-47, nine clips of ammunition and a Luger pistol — in a Brussels park where he had been sleeping on benches, said Sophie David, a lawyer who represented him during his initial interrogation in northern France in the hours after the attack.
That was enough firepower to kill dozens in a matter of minutes. Now sharp criticism is being leveled against Europe’s security preparedness, since Khazzani had been flagged by counterterrorism authorities in a three countries as a potential risk. He was allowed onto the high-speed train — a favorite of government officials, businesspeople and tourists — without any security checks. French and Belgian security officials had him on their radar for more than a year, and Spanish authorities had been in contact with him since at least 2010 when he was picked up for selling hashish.
David said that Khazzani was slight and weak, as though he had been homeless for some time. He denied any connection to Islamist militancy and said he wasn’t religious, his lawyer said.
“When we asked about it, he laughed and said, ‘No,’ ” David said.
He had been convicted of selling marijuana in Spain in 2013 and released on probation, David said. Shortly thereafter he left Spain, and in the past year he traveled throughout Western Europe: Austria, Andorra, Belgium and Cologne, Germany, he told investigators. He was being interrogated through an interpreter since he speaks only a few words of French, she said.
But he denied having traveled to Turkey from Germany, as French investigators believe he did in May 2015 — he said that his passport had been stolen in Brussels and that he had become homeless afterward. Turkey’s porous border with Syria has made it a major hub for jihadist traffic — although it remains a popular tourist destination as well.
In the aftermath of the attack, European leaders called for swift measures to improve security so that they would not need to rely on luck to thwart a shooting that could quickly have become as bloody as the January terrorist attacks in Paris that claimed 20 lives, including the three gunmen.
French Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve said Saturday that the suspect was believed to have been a member of “the radical Islamic movement.” French and Belgian authorities both mobilized thousands of security officers to patrol trains and train stations on Saturday. In densely populated Europe, high-speed trains are as critical to travel as planes are in the United States — but on most routes there are no X-ray machines or metal detectors, and it is possible to buy tickets without providing identification.