John Maddison Tower, Sydney Australia.
It was another harrowing and dramatic day of hostage testimonies from the Lindt Cafe Siege of December 2014. Today it was Marcia Mikhael’s turn to tell the coroners inquest and in turn to the public of Australia what her version of events were on the tragic siege that stunned Australia.
Marcia was the first of the hostages to give evidence who actually was there from start to the bloody ending which saw two of the hostages, Katrina Dawson and Tori Johnson losing their lives, as did the gunman Man Haron Monis. At today’s inquest hearing Marcia was attired in a smart, black lace dress. She struck me as taller than the waif like figure we all saw in the dramatic scenes that followed the end of the fatal siege, where a wounded Marcia was carried out by two burly New South Wales Policeman to safety and medical care.
I observed Marcia Mikhael standing outside the courtroom after giving her evidence. She was surround by support staff and friends. As members of the media we are not allowed to verbally say anything to them or to take photos inside the court complex.As a human being and as a Christian, I deeply felt a sense of genuine compassion for her. I observed she was wearing a cross and during her testimony I prayed quietly for her and her family and her friends and her fellow hostages and the dead and their families. I know I wasn’t allowed to say anything to her, but if I could have said something I would have said something like, “Hundreds of thousands of people around Australia and around the world, are with you Marcia and we are sorry you had to go through such a harrowing ordeal. We hope your life will be happier in the coming days and years”
By the short glances and observations of Marcia she seemed to me be a very strong willed woman. A mother and a kick ass project manager, Marcia Mikhael gave a compelling tale of the events that occurred in the Lindt Cafe. I’m sure all of us have thought about what we would have done if we were in her and the other hostages shoes.
Many of us have played the “armchair hostage” scenario and wondered how would we have handled the monster that was Man Haron Monis. I’m damn sure If this incident had occurred in Tucson Arizona, the conceal and carry laws which are applicable in that state would have provided a very different outcome for those who found themselves at the behest of such a madman.
But we live in a different country and different culture and obviously different laws. It’s the bad guys in Australia who have the guns we are told from afar..Australia has a very different outlook on firearms issues than the United States of America.
But back to the inquest. Marcia through most of her testimony was strong and confident.
She answered her questions from Counsel Assisting the State Coroner in Jeremy Gormly SC competently and she said she understood and stated the importance of being factual.
She made special mention of the courageous work of police officer Senior Constable Paul Withers who was one of the first on the scene. Constable Withers was able to find out vital recon via hand signs from Marcia near the sliding doors located inside the foyer leading out into Martin Place. She bravely signaled as she held her hands above her head when Man Monis wasn’t looking as to how many gunman were in the building, how many guns etc..She even received some breathing advice in gestures, which Marcia said did help her calm down.
Marcia told the inquest that the first she had any inkling there was something unusual happening was when she noticed people wanting to leave and in particular Selina Win Pe saying she had a meeting to go to. According to Mikhael, Man Haron Monis pulled out of a blue bag a gun and said “ No one is to leave sit down”. Mikhael said that Monis quickly ordered us to place our mobile phones and ID’s on a table. According to Mikhael, Monis told us not to worry he wanted to keep us safe and told us “Don’t move, don’t talk”.
Marcia Mikhael initially thought that the first dramatic moments of the siege when Monis pulled out a gun was some kind of prank and someone from Channel 7 was going to come from the kitchen (as their building were opposite the Lindt Cafe) and “say it’s a prank”. Marcia said she soon realized it was very real, when she observed Monis wearing camouflage, army type pants and it was clear “he wasn’t a very nice person”.
According to Mikhael, Monis soon began to tell everyone inside to stand next to the cafe’s windows and doors so they could be seen.
Mikhael said that Monis did not say anything about about the consequences of escaping initially, but later he did say “If you escape people would be killed, He said that many, many times”.
Marcia said at times in the cafe people were crying and were panicked. After sometime Monis did allow people to drop their hands and be allowed to sit down.
Mikhael told the inquest she was frozen by fear by the threats of Monis and could hear someone on the floor who wasn’t well (being Elly Chan) and that she could hear John O’Brien saying he was having chest pains and Paolo Vassallo saying he had a heart condition and Louisa Hope needed to take medication. “I heard all of this in the background as I did not want to turn my head around or open my eyes as Monis would get angry”.
Mikhael said Monis got angry at fellow hostage Stefan Balafoutis whom according to Marcia, Monis dubbed “The Man in The White Shirt” as according to Monis he kept opening his eyes.
Mikhael noticed Elly Chan hyperventilating and vomiting and told Fiona Ma, she had a first aid certificate and asked Fiona to relay that on to Monis. Monis agreed to the help and Mikhael said she got off her chair and assisted Elly.
During the first escape of John O’Brien, Stefan Balafoutis and Paolo Vassallo, Marcia Mikhael said “I actually didn’t see John press the green button (front door exit button onto Phillip St) I heard noise and then the door. I saw John run and Stefan squeeze between a partition. I didn’t think he (Stefan) was going to make it. There was more commotion when Paolo ran to the fire exits, there were noises everywhere”.
Marcia Mikhael told the inquest that Monis first reaction to the escapes was that he was shocked. I was surprised he didn’t shoot, He was angry but he didn’t do anything about it”.
On the escape of Jieun Bae and Elly Chan, Mikhael said she had no idea the doors through which they escaped were unlocked “I had no idea the door was unlocked I wish I knew”.
Soon after this escape Marcia volunteered to make calls on behalf of Monis. She said she rang countless media outlets and a police negotiator. These calls were made with Monis close to Mikhael sometimes they were hands free (speaker on ) and sometimes not, but with every call Monis monitored closely Mikhael’s calls.
Mikhael told the inquest at times she lost the plot with TV stations “I started yelling at people everything counts when you are going to die” She also said she did not fully understand or to be honest did not know what the meaning of the ISIS flag meant. “I did not comprehend why it was so difficult to get a flag”.
The inquest heard that Marcia Mikhael say “I did not understand why he (Monis) could get one (meaning ISIS flag)
Marcia Mikhael also said she did not understand why Tony Abbott could not speak with Monis on the phone as she was told by negotiators I’m sorry he’s a very busy man to which Mikhael responded “But i have a gun to my head”. Monis wanted us to get angry.I was genuinely angry I genuinely thought I was going to die. I thought people didn’t think our lives meant anything”.
Mikhael told the inquest said as the day wore on Monis became tired and agitated “He was just getting angrier, He was getting tired. He was crazy one minute He was nice one minute, he was angry”.
Marcia Mikhael said she noticed more signs of tiredness from Monis around 11pm – 12 am the gunman was yawning as it was very late in the evening. He was tired, he wanted to smoke he wanted to pee it was bizarre the whole thing”
The inquest heard from Marcia Mikhael that in the later hours people were trying to rest “I didn’t sleep i did close my eyes I tried to rest. A lot of people had their eyes closed, praying, it was dark”
After the negotiation calls Mikhael said she felt that “I was mentally exhausted i had just given up”.
Marcia Mikhael told the inquest that Katrina Dawson was sitting in front of her later in the night.
In terms of the third escape of hostages (5 in total) Marcia Mikhael said she noticed the boys acting differently than before and they were showing signs of movement.She noticed Puspendu Ghosh moving around on his seat, as to was Joel Herat and Jarrod Morton-Hoffman . I then noticed shadows of people running. I heard a glass smash and then Monis came running out of the kitchen and then I heard a shot gun blast. I ducked under the table. ‘I cant remember what Monis said I ducked to the ground..my fear was he’d been telling us if anyone had escaped he’d kill if he saw us, he’d kill us. I was hiding fearful of another shot”
The inquest heard from Marcia Mikhael that Katrina Dawson had also sought cover “Katrina was sitting right in front of me she hid under the chairs we were a metre apart.I saw Louisa on the floor..and Robyn was sitting on a bench Tori Johnson was seated next to Robyn”.
Mikhael said she saw Monis grab Louisa Hope “He grabbed her, he pulled her up once she stood or she went back to the bench. He grabbed her by the shoulder or bra / shirt, and dragged her up gun in hand.He was yelling, it was more yelling”
Mikhael told the inquest that she couldn’t see much as she was laying on the floor positioned on her stomach with her eyes fixed on Monis who according to Marcia had his back to her “I kept looking at him the whole time,he addressed Tori and got him to come over. I heard feet shuffles like like little shuffles. I never saw Tori”.
Marcia Mikhael said she head Monis re-load his shotgun which took in her opinion about 45 seconds. When Jeremy Gormly SC asked Marcia (to the effect) was she familiar with shot-gun reloading, she said no, but that she had watched a lot of movies and yes it sounded like it.
Mikhael said she recalled hearing a shot, her focus was on Monis “I could not see Tori at this point”.
Mikhael told the inquest she did hear Monis say to Tori Johnson “Manager come over here right now” After the second shot I did not hear Monis say anything”.
Marcia Mikhael then described the terrifying storming of the building “That’s when the fireworks started, bright flashes of things exploding, It was like being inside a firework. Loud noises and it was horrible to be in the middle of it. The smell of gunpowder and then that’s when I felt the pain as soon as it started. I was trying to get the noise to go away (put head down) I tried to cover my ears with my hands.I got shot, shuffled forward squeezed myself to the bench and went into a fetal position the less likely it was to be shot again…When asked by Jeremy Gormly SC did she see Monis, Mikhael replied “He didn’t move from where he was”.
Mikhael then described the end of the shooting “All the noise then stopped. Furniture was moved I recall as I was taken out I was carried by two officers dressed in black through the front (Phillip St entrance) they had to step over Monis and half of his head was blown out”
When Mikhael was asked later by counsel about how Monis thought the siege would end she said she asked Monis that very question “How do you think you are going to walk out of here,” Mikhael said. Monks replied to her “Don’t worry about that Marcia, I have a plan”
After some further questioning Marcia Mikhael was excused from the witness stand. It was an incredible, dramatic insight into the final hours of the awful siege. Her response at times was genuine, heartfelt emotion.She needed a break before entering into the final component of the siege ending, but to her full credit, Marcia Mikhael bravely gave as much detail as humanely possible. She took the lifts down to the ground floor of Goulburn street and walked back into the real world of 2016, back to her family and her life and hopefully to a happy future.
The inquest which is being presided over by State Coroner Magistrate Michael Barnes and is assisted by Counsel Jeremy Gormly SC, Sophie Callan and Jason Downing will continue on Wednesday
Photo credit acknowledgment: Story header photo taken from AAP: Dan Himbrechts
For further information regarding the Lindt Cafe Siege inquest visit: Inquest into the deaths arising from the Lindt Café siege