Sydney mourns hostage heroes who sacrificed themselves to save others

Victims Tori Johnson and Katrina Dawson are lauded for their courage after reports indicate both sacrificed themselves to save others held

She was a brilliant lawyer who taught young students how to prepare for mock trials. He was the beloved manager of a chocolate shop and cafe who was known for putting the needs of his staff first. Both of their lives ended in a hail of bullets inside a Sydney cafe after a disturbed gunman took them hostage along with 15 others.

As tearful office workers and Muslim women in hijabs laid a sea of flowers at the scene, Katrina Dawson, a 38-year-old mother of three, and Tori Johnson, the 34-year-old manager of the Lindt Chocolat Cafe where the 16-hour siege unfolded, were being lauded for their courage after unconfirmed reports emerged that both had sacrificed themselves to save their fellow hostages.

Sydney’s Catholic Archbishop Anthony Fisher said at an emotional memorial service attended by hundreds at St Mary’s Cathedral that Johnson had reportedly brought the siege to a head by grabbing the shotgun wielded by hostage-taker Man Haron Monis. Monis was killed as police stormed the cafe to end the siege.

“Apparently seeing an opportunity, Tori grabbed the gun. Tragically, it went off, killing him. But it triggered the response of police and eventual freedom for most of the hostages,” Fisher said. “Reports have also emerged that Katrina Dawson was shielding her pregnant friend from gunfire. These heroes were willing to lay down their lives so others might live.”

Dawson was the mother of three young children, Chloe, Sasha and Oliver, and a highly respected commercial lawyer. She was remembered as “one of our best and brightest” by New South Wales Bar Association president Jane Needham. “That’s the only thing we can do to show our feelings,” said Zully Carro, with tears in her eyes after placing flowers on the growing pile. “But to those kids who are not going to have a mother again, these flowers are not going to be any relief to them.”

Andrew Powell, head of Ascham School, which Dawson attended in her youth, said she was a well-respected and giving woman who excelled at her studies. Dawson’s daughter Chloe is a student at the school and Sasha will be attending next year.

Dawson was the school’s debating captain and played hockey and basketball. After she became a lawyer, she helped teach senior students at her former school how to prepare for mock trials.

Johnson was remembered as a selfless man who put others first.

“By nature he was a perfectionist and he had a genuine passion for the hospitality industry and people,” Lindt Australia chief executive Steve Loane said in a statement. “His loss is absolutely tragic.”

Johnson’s parents issued a brief statement, thanking the public for their support.

“We are so proud of our beautiful boy Tori, gone from this earth but forever in our memories as the most amazing life partner, son and brother we could ever wish for,” they said.

Yesterday an outpouring of grief and shock gripped the usually easy-going harbour city. Sydney tabloid The Daily Telegraph conveyed the national mood with its front-page headline: “Evil strikes our heart”.

Well-wishers created a sea of bouquets in an impromptu memorial at Martin Place, the city square in the financial district where the drama unfolded.

“Just the fact that something like this has never happened before in Australia, and it just makes you feel so sad,” said Tom Harris, who works on the Sydney Harbour Bridge, as he approached with a large bouquet. “And I just feel so sad and just feel sorry for the poor people, especially at Christmas time.”

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

“I will ride with you”, read one note attached to a hand-picked bouquet in Martin Place, referring to the 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. Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott also joined the national mourning and laid a bouquet at the spontaneous shrine calling it “an expression of the innate goodness and decency which is a mark of Australian character”.

New South Wales Deputy Police Commissioner Catherine Burn said what transpired in the cafe was still under investigation.

Associated Press, Agence France-Presse