Two Years Later I Still Need To Say Thank You. (Amsterdam To Paris Train Trip 2015)

So unless you know me personally, you wouldn't know that my family and I survived what could have been a very fatal terror attack. It's just about two years ago to the day, and with all the negative that's going on in the world I got to thinking. Through all of this hatred I want to share my story, even if it's on my blog that not many people may read, at least I will have gotten it out. 

You may remember this event occurring in August of 2015, and the names Alek Skarlatos, Anthony Sadler, and Spencer Stone. These men, and several others are the reason I am alive to share this. As you will read, my family and I never got to thank them for every ounce of bravery they possess and for their truly selfless actions. So from the bottom of my heart, Thank You for my life, thank you for everything. There isn't a day that goes by that I am not grateful for you all.

**Disclaimer** I am not a professional or even great writer, and I don't try to be. It's a bit lengthy but bear with me.

--

Not but six years ago I was sitting in a class room, learning Italian and soaking up all of the richness that Rome has to offer. Living in the Eternal City at age 20, even for four months is nothing short of magical. Life felt too good to be true and with the turn of each cobble stone street or iconic building, came a new experience, a wondrous memory that has lived on in such a deep, beautiful place in my heart. Weekends filled with early flights and overnight train rides to new cities and countries either with friends or alone became a usual occurrence- the “norm.” I remember sitting on a high speed train coming back from a day trip to Florence, just me and my new leather jacket, reflecting my euphoric day alone, going from museum to eatery, shop to shop, trying to hold on to each and every moment that I couldn’t believe happened in my life that day. I had a sketchbook where I would draw sculptures from memory and with each swipe of my pen, the surrounding hum and chug of the train silently drifted away. I felt safe. It didn’t matter that I was alone. I felt safe.  I felt safe when I took an overnight train from Rome to Venice with friends- all of us falling into a deep sleep in the hours it took to get there. I felt safe when I was on a twelve hour train ride from Seville to Barcelona with my Mother and sister, writing in my journal for hours, ferociously scribing my week’s memories into one entry as if they would leave my head forever at an instant and again ignoring the world around me. My love for travel was no exception when I boarded a train with my whole [nuclear] family (besides my oldest sister who lives California.) going from Amsterdam through Brussels and was ultimately destined for Paris in the August of 2015. As I was sitting on the train listening to my favorite, soothing voice, Sam Beam (Iron & Wine) and reading Lena Dunham’s “Not That Kind of Girl,” I was in a great mood; relaxed, I was finally going to Paris- who could be mad about that? I felt safe. But let’s back up here because the story of this day did not start by boarding a train.

Waking up in Amsterdam after a night of celebrating my cousin’s twenty first birthday is hardly refreshing to say the least. Spending only a few days there was a whirlwind. We were exhausted.  No one wanted to get back into a car and drive over six hours, especially when each square inch of the tiny jaguar was taken up either by a body or luggage. My dad had arranged for our family to get a large SUV, and much to his disdain was told that the Jaguar was “comprable.” For an American family of five adults traveling in Europe for three weeks, it was a tight squeeze to say the least. The last thing we wanted to do was pile in the clown car for a long road trip, especially since we were hungover. While planning this trip we contemplated taking the high speed train from location to location so my dad could relax instead of worrying about driving in a foreign country for hours at a time. After expressing to my family that my experiences on trains were all wonderful, we decided to trade the car in and book tickets for the high speed train from Amsterdam to Paris, with only one stop on the way in Belgium. On the way to the train my sister, who has always suffered from anxiety, exclaimed that she was worried about going on this train, and what if something happens to us? She’s much like the boy who cried wolf, except she is the girl who cries “What if something bad happens to us?” and she has been this way her entire life so this wasn’t anything out of the ordinary. We hushed her and I tried to reassure her again and again that traveling on the train is the most tranquil way to travel. I may have added in there that “Nothing is going to happen” or “What could possibly go wrong?” Only in retrospect is this exact interaction genuinely astonishing. Both of my sister’s first time on a train was the exact opposite of tranquil, and I still feel so remorseful that they never, and now may never get to experience the silent hum and chug of the train, the calming rhythm of movement and sweeping ephemeral foreign landscapes that have made such an impact on me as a person in the world. I felt safe. 

We had a few hours to kill while we waited for the train in Amsterdam, so we bought last minute keychains, trinkets and souvenirs for our friends and family back home, had a little bite to eat, and did some shopping. I just finished reading Bossypants by Tina Fey in Ireland the week before and I wanted something of a similar genre. A powerful woman figure who was funny and inspiring. This is where I picked up Lena Dunham’s Not That Kind of Girl.  It was finally time to board the train. We waited on the platform and when the doors swooshed open we rushed in, trying to find our seats. We walked up a few carts, passing families, couples exploring Europe, a group of boys traveling for the summer, Fathers with daughters, lone travelers, and people on business trips. We piled our luggage on the designated compartment, on top of stranger’s luggage like Tetris, careful not to let the mound come crashing down. We made our way to our seats. My parents sat next to each other, and I sat across the aisle from them alone. My two sisters sat in front of my parents and across the aisle from two young french boys, about 15 years old. Behind me and a few rows back was an American couple we would soon come to know. We got settled in. I felt safe. 

Our train left around 3pm and we were scheduled to get into Paris at about 6pm. I opened my book and started exploring the intricacies of Lena Dunham’s life while listening to Sam Beam’s calming voice sing into my ear. I was rocked back and forth by the rhythm of the train just as I remembered. After some time we arrived in Belgium. We were stationary on the platform and patiently waited as the new passengers added their luggage to the Tetris pile, just as we had done shortly before. At this point, after the new passengers settled in and the train was on the move again, A woman noticed a man walk by, grab a bag from our train car’s luggage area and keep walking with it. To her it seemed suspicious, so she notified the American Couple a few rows back, my parents, and a few other passengers around us. They all rushed to check if our luggage was stolen. Nothing had seemed out of order so they made their way back to their seats. All the while I am in another world. I felt safe.

Time went by. Page after page I am getting deeper into this book, relishing in the experience. The train makes a stop. We are at a tiny outside platform in France, about an hour away from Paris. We sit at the station for a bit. I keep reading.  I was relaxed. I felt safe. 

More time went by. The train is still at this station. I don’t pay any mind to it.  I keep reading. I felt safe.

More time went by. I finally take off my head phones because my sister looks really concerned. She notices me and asks me what I think is happening. I tell her I don’t think it’s anything and I put my headphones back on. It then dawns on me that we are on a high speed train that is only supposed to make one stop, and we already made that one stop. This was out of the ordinary.  I keep reading anyways, but I leave my headphones off because I notice people start to buzz. Everyone is questioning what is going on, and getting more concerned by the minute. Announcements start to sound over the intercom of the train except they are in french so we can’t understand. There are no english announcements being made. I didn’t know this at the time but my younger sister leaned over to the young french boys across the aisle and asked them if they understood the announcements. They spoke a bit of english and replied “I think there is a man with a gun on the train.”  My older sister asked her what they boys say to her and she froze. Not having the chance to take in what the boys said, my older sister was furiously tapping her, inquiring about what hey just said because she didn’t hear. My younger sister couldn’t reply because she couldn’t even believe what she heard and wasn’t even sure if it was real.  All the while I am still reading my book, unaware of this exchange, concerned but I still felt safe.

About forty five minutes to an hour of waiting on the platform, an employee from the train frantically rushes onto our cart and commands “THERE IS A TERRORIST ON THE TRAIN YOU HAVE TO GET OFF NOW.” 

I didn’t feel safe anymore.

I heard the word “terrorist” and it sent a shockwave throughout my body. You don’t even think that something like this is ever going to make it’s way so close to you. Life seems distant. Time felt distant.

I immediately focus on my older sister. Her face showed that her absolute worst fears in life had literally just come true. She panicked and kept asking my Dad what to do. No one had answers. How do you have an answer in a situation like that? Everyone on the train quickly, yet eerily calmly grabbed their luggage and got off. We were ushered to another train just up the platform. On the platform we became sitting ducks, with no idea of what just happened. Then we were forced to see what just took place five train cars away. 

There is blood on the platform. There is an older man sitting on a bench bleeding next to a young boy holding an IV drip up for him. There is someone on a gurney with his neck in bandages filled with blood. My body feels so empty. I look at my younger sisters face and I didn’t want to start crying because I want to stay calm; I feel so sad that she has to experience this. My older sister is still panicking and asking my dad what to do. He still doesn’t have any answers. All he can say is “keep walking.” in the calmest, yet most frank manner that he can.  We just walked by the aftermath of one man trying to kill everyone on the train. This is real. 

When we get to the next train and wait to start filing in, and I see the American couple that sat a few rows back from me in our train car. I immediately notice the man is wearing a shirt that reads “Lehigh Valley Hooligans.” My family is from the Lehigh Valley in Pennsylvania, so I see this and blurt out “Hey! Are you from the Lehigh Valley?” Now imagine going through all that we just went through and someone comes up to you and asks you about your small town in Pennsylvania, when you are on a random train platform, in a small town, in France.  Amidst all the chaos, it didn’t register to him what was on his shirt so he responded with an understandably hesitant and questionable “Yes?”  to which I replied, “So are we! I just read your shirt!” He seemed relived when I explained how I was aware of where he was from, and we got to talking. His wife was accompanying him on his business trip to Amsterdam, and wanted to make a one night stop in Paris before they left. They had tickets to The Moulin Rouge that night. All seven of us boarded the new train and had to stand in the aisle because they made another train stop to get us. There was a Father and young daughter playing banana grams who were on the previous train and saw the whole incident happen. The young girl started telling us how people blockaded their train car with a food cart. An American couple who was on the very train car where the incident occurred were just behind them. They didn’t say much. Train employees were coming around to ask anyone if they wanted water, to which my Dad replied “Do you have any beer?” Bringing levity to the situation. Our new friends from home laughed and added “Yes this is a situation where we need beer.” surrounding passengers gave a chuckle. The train employee brought out seven beers much to our surprise.  We all crack them open and an announcement comes over the intercom telling us we need to get off that train now because they didn’t check anyones bags and realized it wasn’t safe. I remember having that feeling the whole time- cautiously curious and scared that we didn’t know if what just occurred, was a lone act or not. We became sitting ducks on the platform again. Exposed. Except now we at least had a beer.

After a bit we were ushered to the train station by way of underground tunnel. down steps, up steps. Everything was unsettling. We found out we were in a town called Arras. The crazy thing was they announced that if we wanted to leave from the train station, we could. I distinctly became so scared in that moment because it occurred to me that if the man didn’t act alone in terror, there was a chance that another person could have possibly planted something either on the platform, in the train, or in the train station and flee the scene without even getting checked.  My heart began to race as I became keenly aware of the people who chose to stay and the people who decided to leave. That skeptical feeling sticks in my gut to this day, revealing it’s ugly self in the most uncommon of places.

The passengers who decided to stay, and still needed a way to get to Paris, were ushered down the street. One of the most eerie things that happened during this experience was that as we were walking we see this building across the street from the train station that reads “World Trade Center.” You could hear the reactions from the American passengers, and the worriment in their voices. “I hope they aren’t leading us there.” “You have to be fucking kidding me.” “Oh my God.” 

We were led to an elementary school gym. There was one bathroom for each gender with two stalls. Over one hundred people flooded the school. Again we were sitting ducks. That skeptical feeling was still present. Water bottles were brought in by the case and being passed around, like you see in the crisis scenes in documentaries. Nothing felt real. Despite the circumstances there were young kids who were playing with the rope swing, and climbing the rock wall until the people in charge blocked them off, which was an awful act. Those kids were being kids. It was a stressful day. After a bit of time we were told that everyone needed to come to one side of the gym so they could count us. Now this was confusing to me seeing as they let anyone leave the scene, but later made sense because we needed to get back on another train eventually. We were ushered from one side of gym to the other, and back again. After everyone got re-settled they started making announcements. In french first. This was particularly scary because you heard the reactions of the french people and felt the mood. Everyone was scared. People started yelling what languages they wanted to hear the announcements in and one by one they went through the messages. Not everyone could hear so I went up to the announcer and took a video to relay the message back to my family and our new American friends who stuck with us the whole way. “A scary thing happened today. There was a bad man on the train.” Was part of the english message. That’s all they told us about  what happened. They then went on to explain that we needed to wait for some time longer, and that the red cross had arrived with food packages that included colored pencils and a little coloring book. They told us that after some time we will be taken out of the gym ten people at a time and taken to be questioned by the police about any information we may have. We were in that gym for five hours. Sitting ducks in that gym for five hours. 

During that time we really got to know the couple from home, and luckily he had a hot spot so we could call my sister in California to let her know what happened and that we were safe. My dad called her and his parents. My mom called her sister because we were traveling with her family. They decided to drive from Amsterdam, so they weren’t on the train with us. I got a chance to call my boyfriend at the time. I didn’t think he would answer but he did. I had to tell him what just happened. I wasn’t emotional the whole day, and I didn’t cry until I hesitantly uttered the words “There was a shooter on our train but we are okay.” It’s as if I finally came to grips of what could have happened to my family. He didn’t understand the magnitude of the situation, and nothing was obviously on the news yet so he just let me know he was glad we were safe and that he loved me. I had to make the phone call short because I didn’t want to take up much time on the hot spot. I remember distinctly not wanting to use the word “terrorist.” I was afraid of the word. I still am, especially when it had just been and still could have been such a tangible way to die at this point. 

Because they announced so little information to us we tried looking up the news. We found out that one man had acted alone and was armed with explosives, guns, and about 70 rounds of ammunition. He was ready to take out all of the lives of the passengers on the train including his own. Again, our new reality quickly sank in.  We were made aware that three men from America thwarted the terrorist when his gun got jammed. We were made aware that they were three childhood friends traveling in Europe for the summer and two of them were in the service. Alek Skarlatos, a National Guardsman, Anthony Sadler, a senior at California State University, and Spencer Stone, United States Air Force Staff Sergeant. The three friends with the help of a number of other passengers including Chris Norman, British businessman, and Mark Mongolian, a passenger from France were our saving grace. I need to thank them. I want to thank them in person. They kept us safe.

As I mentioned before you had the option to leave if had a way to get to your destination on your own. This feeling left me so uneasy the whole day with one exception. My mother is a wolf. She can’t stand when people wait around like sheep. Because of this aspect in her personality she couldn’t just stand still and do nothing in this gym. At first she was going all around with cases of water handing them out because they were just dropped off in the corner and no one was passing them around. She then decided that she was going to find a local bar that sold beers to go, and that she did. We were panicking the whole time her, my sister and our new friend’s wife were gone because we never knew what was going to happen next. What if we were all led somewhere else and they weren’t back? They were gone for about a half an hour, and they brought back a couple beers and snacks from what I guess was the only local bar open at the time. The beers were only to be opened when we finally were safely on our way to Paris. Beer brought some levity to the whole situation, again. 

Once the news got ahold of the situation, all media outlets came swarming in the gym to interview anyone and everyone for their news stories. We tried to stay out of the way since we only saw the aftermath and didn’t have firsthand knowledge of what actually took place.  After a few hours we were led out of the gym, ten people at a time and ushered into another holding room where we had to sit down one on one with the authorities to go over our personal information, and let them know if were heard or saw anything about the incident. This process took about another hour because after speaking to the authorities they needed to make accommodations for everyone to get taxis once we got to the train station in Paris. It was a necessity to get back on the train after going through all of this. Once we were all done with this process we were led back to the train. The last place everyone wanted to be, but it was a necessary evil to get to Paris. 

 

We reluctantly boarded the train, got situated all together and started passing out snacks and the beers my Mom bought. Once the train got started and we were on our way we all gave a big cheers and tried to relax as best we could for the next hour on the ride. This makes it seem like we were all smiles at this point which is very much contrary to the truth. We were doing the best we could in a situation we couldn’t get out of. At the very least, we were safe. It was a very long day. Everyone was so exhausted, still anxious, and nervous. There was still an ominous tone in the air that we still couldn’t shake.

Across the aisle from us were a bunch of boys from Brussels who didn’t have any shoes on. We tried to ask them why that was and they told us they took them off to relax on the train ride, but because of the incident they had to get off the train so quickly that no one would let them back on to get their shoes. We talked to our new friends and felt so bad for them because they missed their show at the Moulin Rouge, the only night they scheduled to be in Paris before they went back home to Pennsylvania. 

Once we arrived at the train station there was a huge sense of relief. It was 3am. Our train left around 3pm the day before and was scheduled to arrive three hours later at 6pm. It took 12 hours for everyone to get to Paris safely. The saying “Better late than never,” never had a more poignant meaning than in this very moment in my life. We were safe. My family and our new friends asked a fellow passenger to document our safe arrival with a photo of all of us. We look emotionally stopped down, physically drained, mentally exhausted, yet we are all smiling because we are grateful to have made it there.

I thought the gym was swarming with media, but it was chaos in the train station. We walked by a plethora of reporters and cameras, more stations with packaged meals from the red cross, and passengers from other trains. One thing I remember about walking through the train station in Paris once we had arrived was the way the people who weren’t involved in this experience looked at us. There was a very clear distinction of us and them. I had never felt such profound worry in people’s eyes. Their faces apologized for what everyone on that train had just lived. 

We were ushered to a long line outside to get a taxi. I’ve never seen anything like this before and I’m not sure if I will again, but a couple men were directing the longest line of Taxi’s I had ever seen. With very little patience he was orchestrating people to get packed up and shipped out to where they needed to go. Needless to say this line went so quickly and before I knew it we were saying goodbye to our new friends from our hometown, trading contact info and making plans to stay in touch. My dad and sisters hopped in one cab, and my mom and I hopped into another. Within minutes we were walking into our hotel.

My parents walked up to the hotel lobby to check in. My sisters and I plop down in the lobby and start watching the news. They are covering the days events. The event that we just got out of. One minute into sitting down we watch ourselves walk right by a man being interviewed on TV. That’s one thing you’d never expect to see in a foreign country- yourself right on the TV within minutes of entering a hotel. It was surreal to say the least. It still blows my mind when I think about it. So many moments that day questioned my reality. This was definitely one of them. 

We get settled into the hotel and get in bed. I don’t know about my sisters but I stayed up for at least another hour looking up the news to find out more about what happened. I remember going on Facebook and someone from home already shared an article about the train attack in France. It had made it’s way across the world so quickly. I was in shock, yet eventually I fell asleep.

The next morning I had to get in the shower. I sat down in the tub with the rush of hot water crashing down on me, crying my eyes out. I couldn’t come to terms with how much hatred one person had in his heart to try and take out that many people, and how close my world was to coming to an end. I wish I never saw his face. I can’t get it out of my head. I absolutely fucking hate that the media posts the faces of these people everywhere, especially if they have been caught or killed. I think it was absolutely disgusting that “The Boston Bomber” was on the cover of Rolling Stone. I think that was one of the most inexcusable, disgusting things- People work their whole lives to be on the cover of that-but that is a different story. I was grateful to be alive, grateful to the men that saved us, and I had a sobering moment, coming to terms with my reality.

That morning my parents tried to go to the American Embassy where the boys were to see if they could somehow, by chance, have the opportunity to thank these men. We never got the chance. Because of those men my family got to see Paris. I got to live my life long artist's dream of visiting the Louvre. When we walked under the Eiffel tower that night and it was way more than I imagined. It glittered and gleamed and was a beacon of life in that very moment. Because of those men I got to finish college (again.) Because of those men I got a chance to move out of my parents house, get a job and experience life living on my own. Because of those men, that couple that we met on the train had a chance to create a beautiful baby girl. Because of those men my sisters got to flourish in their own careers. We got to throw a huge party for my younger sister's 21st birthday. Because of those men my dad had a chance to start running again, losing 40 pounds and on his way to his very first marathon. Because of their bravery we are alive. Despite all of the terrible terrible things happening in the world right now I can't ignore all the good that has happened because of them. I am blessed to be alive and I truly experience each day differently because I am breathing. 

To everyone reading, in America and everywhere- Stop hate. Don't judge others. Be Protectors, and lovers. Be Smart and kind and curious. Be brave. Despite religion, race, beliefs, politics, genders, or anything else, we are all people, only here for a finite amount of time. Don't waste it with hatred. My favorite poet Bukowski says "Your life is your life, know it while you have it, you are marvelous." Know your life when you have it. Choose to be marvelous.

To Alek, Anthony and Spencer, from the bottom of my heart, Thank You. I hope one day I can say this in person to you three. You're a huge part of who I have been able to become and I am so grateful for you, more than you'll ever know.

Love, 
Susie Sewell

THALYS_Train_100215.jpg
THALYS_Train_0821150001_2.jpg
THALYS_Train_0821150001.jpg
christmas card 2015.jpg