The 15:17 to Paris

Ex-Richmonder Mark Moogalian, who foiled French train attack, plays himself in Clint Eastwood movie.

On Aug. 21, 2015, Mark Moogalian’s life changed in ways he had never envisioned. The former Richmonder, who lives in France with his wife Isabelle, was one of four Americans on the Thalys train from Amsterdam to Paris to thwart an attempted terror attack on hundreds of passengers by Moroccan national Ayoub El Khazzani, barely surviving a gunshot wound in the back. Last summer, Moogalian, 53, relived the most terrifying moments in his life when he portrayed himself in the new film The 15:17 to Paris, directed by Clint Eastwood, which opened in theaters nationwide last month. Moogalian, who played in several Richmond bands in the 1980s and 1990s, also recorded a song about the attack, which is available on his website. For his bravery, he was awarded the Legion of Honour, France’s highest decoration. We talked to Moogalian about his ordeal, his work on the movie and how he plans to move on.

Why were you and your wife Isabelle on the train to Paris on that fateful day on Aug. 21, 2015?

We were coming back from a trip to Amsterdam. We decided to go there instead of the beach. My mother had died two months prior in Virginia, and when we got back to France we decided to do something different. So we went to Amsterdam for a few nights and left on what would have been my mother’s 76th birthday.

You were one of the first to confront the gunman.   

I was sitting in seat 71 and Isabelle was sitting in seat 74. The train had pulled out of the Brussels station. I was reading an article on my smartphone when the bathroom door opened. I got up 10 minutes later. I had a strange feeling but I didn’t know what it was. I flipped the little handle to open the glass door that leads to the little corridor where the bathroom was. I saw a young man [a French man identified only as Damien A.] leaning against the wall to my left. Then I turned to my right and saw a guy standing in the bathroom entrance who looked a little hypnotized and had a rifle slung over his shoulder. It was an AK 47. At first Damien and I just stared at El Khazzani in disbelief, and then Damien lunged at him and I knew it was for real. That’s when I went and told my wife to get out of there, because she was sitting on the right-hand side of the train with her back to the transparent wall that divides the seating area from the little corridor where the bathrooms are. I had been sitting across from her. The sliding door had opened again and Isabelle caught sight of the gun barrel.

What happened next?

So Isabelle gets up and leaves, but doesn’t go too far. She just goes down a few rows and ducks behind some seats on the right hand side of the train. I go back to Damien and El Khazzani. I remember the scuffle, El Khazzani’s face, arms flying. My first instinct is to get the gun away from El Khazzani, so once I have it, I take off with the intention of putting it in a safe place before going back and helping Damien. I say “I’ve got the gun” in English and take three or four steps before El Khazzani shoots me in the back with his 9 mm pistol.

At this point, you must have thought it was over.

I floated in the air for a moment, realizing what had just happened and thinking I would die. I thought it was too soon. After I got shot I collapsed like a marionette and crawled between some seats on the left side of the train, and, being in a lot of pain, I was pretty much unable to move. I turned my head back and saw El Khazzani walking towards me over my right shoulder. He knelt down to retrieve the AK. At that point I just buried my head in the seat and played dead, waiting for him to put a bullet in my head and hoping someone else would step in. But all I could hear were metallic clicks which were El Khazzani trying to get the AK to work. It might have gotten jammed when I fell with it.

But that’s when you got help from a group of American travelers: Anthony Sadler, Alek Skarlatos and Spencer Stone.

I heard voices and then opened my eyes, looked to the right and saw green and blue streaks in the air, which was Spencer tackling Khazzani, and that’s when I felt relieved that it was over even though I was sure I was going to die. About 20 minutes later we arrived at the Arras station. We waited about 5 minutes for the police to secure the train, then the paramedics finally arrived. I was still alive.

When and how did you hear from Clint Eastwood asking you to portray yourself in a movie about the attack?

I got a call from [Producer] Tim Moore in June 2017. He said Clint wanted me to be involved in the film. I immediately said yes. We filmed on the actual train, speeding down the tracks back and forth between Paris and Brussels. It took four days and was filmed at the end of August in 2017.  

What was it like to relive the probably scariest experience of your life?

It wasn’t really difficult because I had survived the real attack, though it got a little weird from time to time, like when the paramedics boarded the train. They were the actual paramedics from the day of the attack. It was exciting to work with Clint Eastwood and his team. They are incredibly professional and relaxed at the same time. Plus, we got to hang out with Spencer, Alek, Anthony and Chris Norman [a British passenger who also helped to subdue the assailant.]

Are you still in touch with them?

Yes, we have gotten together several times. They are great guys and we always have a good time when we get together.

After this movie, what’s next for you?

I suppose things will eventually get back to normal, which is fine by me.

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