For 16 long hours, the hostages faced a crazed gunman on a suicide mission who threatened to kill them one at a time. And as desperation drove them to contemplate running for their lives, they were torn between thoughts of personal safety and fear of endangering those left behind.
The survivors of a siege at the Lindt cafe in Sydney last December spoke for the first time about their harrowing encounter with fanatical Islamist gunman Man Haron Monis. Their interviews were aired on two rival Australian networks last night.
Ms Marcia Mikhael, 43, a bank executive and mother of three, told Channel Seven that she realised Monis was on a suicide mission after she asked how he thought the siege would end. He told her: "Don't worry, I have a plan for myself."
The self-styled sheikh held 18 people hostage before shooting dead 34-year-old store manager Tori Johnson. This led to a police raid that ended with the death of Monis and another hostage - barrister and mother of three Katrina Dawson, 38 - who was killed by ricocheting bullets.
The hostages revealed that shortly after midnight - more than 14 hours after the siege began at about 9.45am on Dec 15 - Monis allowed them to make phone calls to their families. This was seen as an ominous sign that he planned to kill them soon.
"It was very strange," Mrs Harriette Denny, 30, told Channel Nine. "He had a big smile on his face when he kept threatening us... Knowing that you're going to die is hard. The desperation, the fear, thinking that there is nothing you can do."
Cafe employees Jarrod Hoffman and Joel Herat said they hid knives in their apron pouches and considered trying to stab Monis, but decided it was too risky.
Mr Hoffman, a 19-year-old university student, recalled thinking: "We are so close. We could do this. (But) he had his gun on his knee and I could see his gun was pointed directly at (hostage) Julie Taylor's back."
Mr Herat, 21, said he thought: "Do I stab him? What if I miss? He could shoot us all… I couldn't end up doing it. I just couldn't."
It emerged after the siege that Monis, 50, was well known for his extremist views and was on bail facing charges of being an accessory to the murder of his former wife and of sexual assault.
Prime Minister Tony Abbott has ordered a review, which will examine Monis' 18 years in Australia after arriving from Iran, as well as any intelligence oversights and his access to guns. A review by the state of New South Wales will examine the police operation.
Ms Mikhael criticised the police, saying they could have handled the siege better. She recalled speaking to the police on the phone at the bidding of Monis, who had demanded to talk to Mr Abbott.
"I actually lost it when someone (from the police) told me the Prime Minister was a very busy man and he couldn't come to the phone... I think I actually said that I don't care what (Abbott) is doing right now, whether he's walking his dog or he's, you know, playing golf with his mates - I'm sure there's nothing more important happening in Australia right now than this, and the lives of the people in this cafe. And then I hung up."
A court inquest two weeks ago heard that a police raid was ordered at 2.14am after a sniper saw Monis standing behind Mr Johnson and shooting him in the head.
"He (Monis) was scanning and moving around and shuffling with the gun on high," former banking executive Louisa Hope, 50, told Channel Nine. "Then his demeanour completely changes. He steels himself and goes very firm... Then he shoots Tori."
Some hostages thought about escaping but feared that Monis would carry out his threat to start shooting hostages.
Said Ms Fiona Ma, 19, who had started work at the cafe only a week earlier: "I couldn't leave people behind. I couldn't live with the guilt if something happened to someone else. I made the choice to stay until the very end."
Several groups escaped at various times, which Ms Ma said made Monis increasingly mad and "extremely paranoid".
Mr Herat, breaking into tears, said: "I have a lot of guilt. Katrina (Dawson) was sitting right behind me. Should I have grabbed her hand?… Could I have got (Mr Johnson) out? Could I have done something?… I am still coming to terms with it."
The survivors were reportedly paid for their interviews, with some said to have received as much as A$300,000 (S$316,000).
Mrs Hope said she was glad the siege did not lead to an outbreak of racist sentiment in Australia.
After the siege, many people left flowers near the cafe and memorial ceremonies and tributes were held across the nation.
"I was afraid for Australia," she said. "We could have become a country of haters."
This article was first published on February 9, 2015.
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