By JOHN LEICESTER (Associated Press)
LE PECQ, France (AP) — The attacker slashed the 24-year-old Catholic pilgrim with the knife he used to savagely stab one young child after another. But rather than run, Henri held on – using a heavy backpack he was carrying to swing at the assailant and fend off his blade.
French media hailed Henri as ‘the hero with a rucksack’ on Friday after he was shown in a video grappling with the attacker and charging at him in the stabbing attack which seriously injured four 22-month-old children at 3 years old, and also injured two adults.
Henri, who is on a nine-month walking and hitchhiking tour of cathedrals across France and was in the Alpine town of Annecy when the attacker ransacked his lakeside park on Thursday, also received personal words of gratitude from President Emmanuel Macron. The French leader visited hospitals to meet victims and their families and thanked medical personnel, police, firefighters, civilians – including Henri – and others whose first aid and quick actions saved lives. lives.
“You have been through very hard, traumatic times,” Macron said. “I am very proud of you.”
Henri asked Macron to be invited to the reopening of Notre-Dame de Paris next year, following repairs to the cathedral damaged by fire in 2019.
“I take care of it personally,” replied the French leader.
The president had reassuring news about the victims, expressing hope after speaking to doctors about their injuries that “normally things will continue to improve”. The most seriously injured children, two cousins, were stabilized and “the doctors were very confident,” Macron said.
An injured British girl “is awake, she is watching TV”, Macron added, addressing first responders. An injured Dutch woman has also improved and a seriously injured adult – who was both stabbed and injured by a shot fired by police as they arrested the alleged attacker – is regaining consciousness, Macron said. The second injured adult was discharged from a hospital and was among dozens of people Macron met and thanked, his left elbow still bandaged.
“The first thing the doctors told me…was that these children were saved thanks to the rapidity of the collective intervention,” Macron said. “Thank you very much for your courage.”
Henri had a heavy backpack and was holding another when the assailant stabbed him. But despite the blade and the frightening aggression of the assailant, Henri continued to harass him, chasing the man into a playground – where he repeatedly stabbed a child in a stroller – and then out of the park again , carrying his backpacks all the time. Henri appeared to throw one at the assailant at one point, then pick it up again to take another hit.
Henri said he was fueled by his Catholic faith.
“When you know that you are loved by God and that he saved our lives, you can act without thinking too much about your own (life) to try to save those of the children,” he told the channel. French BFMTV.
Henri’s father, Francois, said he believed his son’s tenacity deterred the attacker from stabbing other victims before police tackled him to the ground.
“He took a lot of risks – when he was unarmed, with just his backpacks,” the father told The Associated Press. “He kept running after him for several minutes, to prevent him from coming back and slaughtering the children even more. I think he prevented the carnage by scaring her. Really very brave.
François asked that their surname not be published, expressing concern that their family would suddenly and inadvertently be thrust into the public eye at a time of shock and outrage in France over the malice of the attack and the helplessness of its young victims.
The profile of the alleged attacker, a 31-year-old Syrian political refugee, has also revived political debate over French migration policies. Right-wing and far-right critics of French policy have quickly dusted off arguments that migration controls are too lax.
For his part, Henri rejects the label of “hero”. He said he “tried to act as all French people should act or would act”.
“At that point, you unplug your brain and react a bit like an animal on instinct,” he said.
“I am far from the only one to have reacted,” he added. “A lot of other people around started, like me, running after him to try to scare him, to push him away. And other people immediately went to the children to take care of the injured.
The motives for the attack in and around a children’s playground remained unexplained. The suspect, who has refugee status in Sweden, remains in custody. Psychiatrists were evaluating him, said government spokesman Olivier Veran.
Henry’s father said his son “told me that the Syrian was incoherent, saying lots of strange things in different languages, calling on his father, his mother, all the gods”.
“In short, he was possessed by who knows what, but possessed by madness, that’s for sure,” the father told the AP.
Henri, who documents his pilgrimage to France on social media, said he hitchhiked to another abbey when the horror unfolded before him.
After the assailant was arrested, and after seeing first responders tending to the victims, Henri said, “All I had to do was start praying.”
The 3-year-old British girl and her two French cousins - a girl and a boy, both aged 2 – were rushed to a hospital in the French Alpine town of Grenoble. It was the first step for Macron and his wife on Friday morning.
The Annecy prosecutor’s office identified the fourth child as a 22-month-old Dutch girl. She was treated in Geneva, in neighboring Switzerland.
The seriously injured adult was treated in Annecy. The Portuguese Foreign Ministry said he was Portuguese and “now out of danger”. He was injured “trying to prevent the attacker from fleeing the police”, he added.
“For this act of courage and bravery, we thank him deeply,” added the ministry.
French authorities said the suspect was recently denied asylum in France, as Sweden had already granted him permanent residency and refugee status a decade ago.
Senior prosecutor Line Bonnet-Mathis said the man’s motives were unknown, but did not appear to be related to terrorism. He was armed with a folding knife, she said.
Jennifer O’Mahony in Madrid, Armando Franca in Lisbon, Portugal, and Nicolas Vaux-Montagny in Lyon, France, contributed to this report.