PARIS — They grew up together, fought off an attacker together and accepted a nation’s honor together.
Three days after they pounced on and subdued a gunman Friday aboard a packed train headed to Paris, American childhood friends Anthony Sadler, Spencer Stone and Alek Skarlatos received the Legion of Honor — France’s highest recognition — Monday.
The Americans, who reportedly met in middle school in California, planned on spending the summer sightseeing together. It was Sadler’s first trip to Europe, and National Guardsman Skarlatos was on a monthlong break after serving in Afghanistan. Stone is an Air Force serviceman.
They will return to the United States celebrated for their courage and quick action, and for exemplifying teamwork and friendship.
Emanuel Skarlatos, Alek’s father, told The Oregonian newspaper that he’d been working in his yard Friday when he got a call from his son.
“He said he and his friend took down a terrorist on a train heading to Paris. Just like that, like it was no big deal,” Emanuel Skarlatos recalled. “I said, ‘What?’ ”
British passenger Chris Norman, who helped tackle the gunman, also received the French award during Monday’s ceremony at the Élysée Palace.
“By their courage, they saved lives,” President François Hollande said. “They gave us an example of what is possible to do in these kinds of situations.”
The four stopped a potential massacre Friday aboard a high-speed train that had departed the Netherlands and was bound for the French capital.
“Three Americans and one Englishman … you risked your lives to defend an ideal, the ideal of liberty and freedom,” Hollande said.
Back in the States, Everett Stone praised his brother.
“He pretty much sums up the definition of what it means to be a warrior,” he told CNN affiliate KOVR-TV.
“He should not be alive at all, and he saved every single person’s life on that train.”
Spencer Stone, who was wounded in the head, neck and almost had his thumb cut off by the gunman, still managed to help a man who had his throat cut. Stone applied pressure to the man’s neck to help him avoid bleeding to death, his friends said.
Another passenger, a French national, also confronted the gunman and will be honored at a later date.
Napoleon Bonaparte established the Legion of Honor in 1802 to recognize exceptional leaders and unusual achievements.
The four men were in the same train car when gunfire erupted. Shortly afterward, a shirtless man appeared with a gun slung over his shoulder.
“He never said a word,” said Sadler, a student at Sacramento State. “At that time, it was either do something or die.”
They charged at the gunman, and a fierce struggle ensued.
“He kept pulling more weapons left and right,” said Stone, his arm in a sling from injuries suffered in the struggle. “He seemed like he was ready to fight to the end. So were we.”
They punched the suspect, choked him and hit him with his own weapons. They finally restrained him before the train pulled up in Arras in northern France.
Stone tackled the attacker first. He was hospitalized and released.
“It is clear that their heroic actions may have prevented a far worse tragedy,” said President Barack Obama, who phoned the three Americans.
Stone is a trained medical technician, Stone’s friend Airman First Class Sean Murphy told The New York Times. It was Stone’s “second instinct” to do what he did, but Murphy told the newspaper he was still shocked by what happened.
Norman, the Briton, said he was honored to receive the medal and ecstatic to be alive, along with all the passengers on the train.
“I am happy that no one got hurt,” he said. “Spence and Alek are the two guys who we should really thank the most because they were the first ones who actually got up and did it.”
When they took action, Norman jumped in as well.
“That gave me the impetus to get up and do it,” he said. “They galvanized me to go.”
New York social worker Christina Coons, who was aboard the train, said she didn’t think she would make it.
“The thoughts that were running through my mind were, ‘I’m I going to die … I’m not ready to die,’ ” she told CNN’s “New Day” amid tears. “I have so much more to do with my life. I’m only 28 years old.”
She said she owed her life to the passengers who tackled the gunman.
“I’m incredibly grateful to those men. … They are fantastic human beings,” she said. “Thank you so much from the bottom of my heart.”
The alleged gunman, identified as Moroccan national Ayoub El Khazzani, said he only intended to conduct a robbery, not a terror act, his attorney Sophie David told CNN affiliate BFMTV.
David said her client told her he found the firearms in a public garden next to a train station in Brussels, Belgium.
But authorities said it appears he was planning a massacre, considering the kind of firepower he had.
The suspect had an AK-47 assault weapon with nine magazines of ammunition, a Luger pistol with extra ammo and a box cutter, French Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve said.
“The guy had a lot of ammo,” said Skarlatos, a National Guardsman based in Oregon. “His intentions were pretty clear.”
Spanish officials said the suspect’s family moved to Spain from Morocco in 2007.
He was linked to investigations into radical Islamist networks, a senior European counterterrorism official said. His DNA was on file with Spanish authorities, French media reported.
There are indications he traveled to Turkey between May and July, probably to try to join up with ISIS in Syria, a senior European counterterrorism official told CNN terror analyst Paul Cruickshank.
ISIS operatives are using Turkey as a base to redirect European extremists trying to travel to Syria to launch attacks back home, according to Cruickshank.
Investigators have yet to make a final determination on El Khazzani’s travel. He was likely linked to ISIS fighters in Turkey, according to the counterterrorism official
It’s unclear whether he made it to Syria or what he did to attract the attention of Spanish authorities. Spanish police alerted France he was preparing to travel to the latter country last year, Cazeneuve said.
Beyond that, there appears to be a disagreement between French and Spanish sources about who knew what and when.
The suspect is in custody undergoing interrogation.
CNN’s Jason Moon, Jessica Moskowitz and Tim Lister contributed to this report.