Tearful Australians mourn hostages killed in Sydney cafe siege

'Apparently seeing an opportunity, Tori Johnson grabbed the gun. Tragically it went off, killing him,' said Archbishop Anthony Fisher of one of the victims killed during a memorial service.

Young Muslim women lay flowers at a makeshift memorial near the scene of a fatal siege in the heart of Sydney's financial district on December 16, 2014. Peter Parks/AFP PHOTO
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SYDNEY // Tearful office workers and other grieving Sydney residents laid flowers at the scene of a deadly siege on Tuesday, as victims of the attack were hailed as "heroes".

Florist kiosks struggled to keep up with demand as well-wishers created a huge impromptu memorial, near to the Lindt Cafe where two hostages were killed in the early hours of Tuesday morning.

Tori Johnson, the 34-year-old manager of the cafe, and Katrina Dawson, a 38-year-old barrister and mother-of-three were described as heroes “willing to lay down their lives so others might live” in a church service mourning their deaths.

“Reports have emerged this morning of the heroism of the male victim of this siege,” said Archbishop Anthony Fisher, speaking in St Mary’s Cathedral, about 500 metres from the Lindt chocolate cafe.

“Apparently seeing an opportunity, Tori Johnson grabbed the gun. Tragically it went off, killing him, but it triggered the response of the police and eventual freedom for most of the hostages.”

The Archbishop said reports had also emerged that Katrina Dawson was shielding her pregnant friend from gunfire.

“[The] heart of our city is broken by the deaths of two innocents,” he added.

New South Wales deputy police commissioner Catherine Burn did not confirm reports of Johnson’s tussle with the gunman, adding that investigators were still compiling the chain of events that led to the cafe being stormed by heavily-armed police, and the 16-hour siege ending.

The Islamist gunman, Iranian-born Man Haron Monis, also died in the siege at Martin Place, a city square in the heart of Sydney's financial district. Six more people were injured, including three women with gunshot wounds.

Johnson’s parents praised their “beautiful boy” in a statement and called for everyone to “pray for peace on Earth”.

Other details emerged on Tuesday after some of the communications and videos made by the hostages under duress were released.

One hostage had called The Daily Telegraph newspaper during the siege, identifying 50-year-old Monis as “the brother.”

“We’ve got pregnant ladies in here, and we’ve got sick and elderly, and we are very, very tired, and some very young staff who deserve to have a decent, normal life at this point, so get us the hell out of here, please.”

The hostage said the gunman was next to her: “He’s sitting right here, I have you on speaker, I can’t compromise myself and my fellow hostages.”

In a video message, filmed in front of a black Islamic flag similar to those used by extremist Islamist groups, one hostage said her captor had placed bombs around the city — which later turned out not to be true.

The attack by Monis has rocked the country. Sydney tabloid The Daily Telegraph conveyed the national mood with its front-page headline: “Evil Strikes Our Heart”.

Social media was flooded with expressions of fear and dismay, including pictures of the distinctive city harbour and skyline captioned with the hashtag #prayforSydney.

"I will ride with you," read one note attached to a hand-picked bouquet in the city square Martin Place. The phrase refers to a campaign for solidarity with the Muslim community that has seen tens of thousands tweet the hashtag #illridewithyou.

Flags on all government buildings were ordered to be flown at half mast.

“I don’t think I could be sadder,” said New South Wales’ police commissioner, Andrew Scipione, as he looked at the floral tributes where emotional onlookers sobbed.

While the siege was underway, Martin Place attracted curious onlookers. But on Tuesday the mood was sombre as hundreds of people, including Prime Minister Tony Abbott, paid their respects and signed condolence books.

“It just doesn’t feel the same today,” said onlooker Terri Lucia. “I just feel that we’ve lost something, something that I felt that we were protected from, and that’s ... so upsetting. I feel we lost our innocence [on Monday].”

Security was stepped up across Sydney, with police increasing patrols at transport hubs, landmarks and places of worship to safeguard the public, including members of the Muslim community.

“Tragically, there are people in our community ready to engage in politically motivated violence,” said Mr Abbott, who raised Australia’s terrorism alert to the highest level in a decade three months ago. “The events in Martin Place also show that we are ready to deal with these people, professionally and with the full force of law.”

In September, police disrupted an alleged plot by ISIL supporters to abduct and behead a member of the public.

The cafe siege at Martin Place was not the work of a terrorist cell, however, but a self-proclaimed sheikh facing dozens of serious charges including involvement in his wife’s murder.

But the shock of the bloodshed — and the death of people who had been going about their ordinary morning ritual of buying a coffee on their way to work — was too much for many on Martin Place.

Mirella Rigo rushed through the crowd of well-wishers to embrace a Muslim woman laying flowers, to show her solidarity with the wider Muslim community.

“It’s heartfelt,” she said. “I think to make them see they are not responsible for this.”

* Agence France-Presse