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Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 18 September 2018

The 15:17 to Paris: the real-life heroes who helped foil terror attack star in new film 

Mark Moogalian and Christopher Norman helped foil a gunman on a train and now star in Clint Eastwood’s latest film about the incident 

Professor Mark Moogalian plays himself Clint Eastwood's film 'The 15:17 to Paris'. Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures
Professor Mark Moogalian plays himself Clint Eastwood's film 'The 15:17 to Paris'. Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures

On August 21, 2015, just before 6pm, the lives of Mark Moogalian and Christopher Norman changed forever. Both men – the former a 53-year-old French-American professor of English at the Sorbonne, the latter a 62-year-old British IT consultant who helps emerging businesses in Africa – were strangers on a train, travelling from Amsterdam to Paris. But, when a gunman emerged from the bathroom of their carriage, the two found themselves working together to potentially save the lives of more than 500 other passengers.

The pair, along with American passengers Anthony Sadler, Alek Skarlatos and Spencer Stone, and a French passenger known only as Damien A – who has maintained his anonymity since that fateful day – were rewarded for their heroism on the cross-border train, with France’s highest honour, the Légion d’Honneur. Now they are subjects and stars of a film about the on-track drama directed by Clint Eastwood: The 15:17 to Paris.

Moogalian was the second person to encounter the attacker after he emerged from the bathroom armed with an assault rifle, pistol and a knife – Damien A was overpowered attempting to tackle the gunman inside the bathroom. The professor initially wrestled the assault rifle away from his foe, but his victory was short-lived – the attacker shot him in the neck with a handgun. “For better or for worse, I’m the kind of person who will take risks,” says Moogalian. “It’s something I’ve got in me, and maybe it’s not always the best idea in the world, but that time it was.”

At the other end of the carriage, the film's other star, Norman had already spotted the gunman and was waiting in his seat getting set to pounce. Norman says: “When he didn’t actually appear in front of me and I heard some banging and thumping, I thought, well somebody’s having a go at him. So I joined in.”

By the time Norman moved into the fray, three lifelong friends from California – student Sadler, and off-duty military men Stone and Skarlatos – were tackling the gunman in the aisle. After he was subdued, Norman helped Sadler and Skarlatos hog-tie the suspected terrorist using pieces of clothing handed over by other passengers, while Stone, himself seriously injured, administered emergency first aid to the heavily bleeding Moogalian.

The men could be forgiven for moving on from the horrific ordeal and putting it behind them, but two years later, Moogalian and Norman each received a phone call from producer Tim Moore, who was working on Eastwood’s movie version of the events. The director had taken the unusual decision to not use Hollywood A-listers in the lead roles but, if possible, real-life protagonists. Stone, Sadler and Skarlatos, whose book (co-written by Jeffrey E Stern) inspired the film, were already on board, but Norman admits he was initially unsure.

“My first reaction was I didn’t want to participate in it, because I had a pretty tough time afterwards,” he says. “I more or less decided to stop everything after the event.” Eventually, however, he relented. “Not everybody has an opportunity to be in a film directed by Clint Eastwood,” he says. “And it would be good to see the other guys, anyway. So, I went ahead and did it, and it was actually very cathartic for me.”

The decision should have been even tougher for Moogalian – he almost died on the day and still suffers nerve damage from his wounds, but the college professor didn’t hesitate.

“When I got shot and thought I was going to die, I was very happy that I was not afraid. And it’s important to remember that it was a victory. It was the first time there had been this type of attack on French soil in which nobody got killed,” he says. “It also meant I’d have more time to hang out with Alek, Anthony and Spencer, who I’d kept in contact with, and have the great privilege of working on a film directed by Clint Eastwood.”

French president Francois Hollande commends the bravery of train passengers, from left. Chris Norman, Anthony Sadler, Spencer Stone, and Alek Skarlatos. AFP
French president Francois Hollande commends the bravery of train passengers, from left. Chris Norman, Anthony Sadler, Spencer Stone, and Alek Skarlatos. AFP

Eastwood was clearly determined to shoot his film as authentically as possible. He reunited as many of the actual travellers, crew and first responders who’d been part of the original events as he could muster. The terror suspect himself, Moroccan Ayoub El Khazzani, is played by actor Ray Corasani. The director also filmed the entire dramatic sequence aboard a speeding train as it shuttled passengers across Europe.

“I was impressed by how much he wanted the film to be a true reflection of what had happened on the train,” says Moogalian. As cameras rolled in the meticulously reconstructed carriage, he recalls feeling himself slipping back into the events of 2015. “I wanted to get it right, as close as possible to the way it really happened. We all wanted to do a good job because Clint Eastwood was taking somewhat of a risk having us do this.” In the end though, he says: “It was pretty easy to relive it.”

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Read more:

Men who stopped train attack to star in Clint Eastwood film

France attack: witness account of terrifying train ride from Amsterdam

Now it’s personal: fighting back can help defeat terror

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Now, Moogalian is just looking forward to seeing the finished product. “It’s a really good story for a film,” he says. “And the idea of people watching me on the floor and covered in blood doesn’t weird me out or anything. I didn’t die, you know? This movie is a celebration of a victory that was relatively hard fought. We were ready to go the distance.”

The 15:17 to Paris is released in UAE cinemas February 8

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