Tragic toll of Lindt Cafe siege’s reluctant heroes
They are the reluctant heroes who put their lives on the line at the Lindt Cafe siege.
Now five years on they are being awarded for their extraordinary courage and bravery in a private ceremony - and that's just how they'd like it.
Many of the 48 NSW Police officers who will receive recognition for their actions on December 15 and 16, 2014, are still operatives who work under pseudonyms or behind balaclavas; tactical officers, negotiators and bomb disposal technicians.
There will be little fanfare at the discreet awards ceremony and for some, the honours are bittersweet.
The officers believe they were simply doing their jobs when they entered the stronghold on Martin Place as gunman Man Haron Monis roamed around with a sawn-off shotgun and the threat of a bomb exploding loomed over police.
And while police risked their lives responding to the siege, two innocent people, cafe manager Tori Johnson and Katrina Dawson, lost theirs.
But when NSW Police Commissioner Mick Fuller presents the awards on Tuesday, he will remind them they did their jobs courageously.
"On this day, while the performance of the organisation has been in question, they need to remember that they went through the door and put their lives on the line to save all the hostages," Mr Fuller told The Sunday Telegraph.
Twenty nine police will receive the NSW Police Force's highest honour - a Commissioner's Valour Award - while 19 others will receive the Commissioner's Commendation for Courage.
Tactical dog handler Leading Senior Constable Leo Clarke will receive a valour award for being on the frontline of the siege with his dog Demon, including when the TOU went inside the cafe.
Among the group, one officer is on long term sick leave, others have left the police force altogether in the wake of the siege, some have been promoted and a sniper is in a bitter battle with police over claims he could have shot Monis through glass windows and ended the siege earlier (a claim NSW Police vigorously disputes and a coroner didn't accept).
Among the 29 officers receiving the higher honour for valour is just one general duties officer: Highway Patrol senior constable Paul Withers, who is currently on long term leave.
Snr Const Withers risked his life to creep up to the cafe to secretly communicate with hostage Marcia Mikhael.
Using hand signals and mouthing words, Snr Const Withers asked a crying and shaking Mrs Mikhael how many gunmen were inside.
His own observations of hostages being used as human barriers in front of windows helped shaped the police response.
Eventually he was ordered to pull back for his own safety, a move that haunted him years later.
"I didn't want to leave the hostages without the reassurance that the police were there and were going to do something to assist them," he told an inquest in 2016.
Mrs Mikhael told The Sunday Telegraph she was glad the "person who managed to calm me down that day" was being recognised.
"I am very grateful that he showed up when he did," she said.
A majority of the valour recipients will be the 22 unnamed Tactical Operations Unit officers who stormed the Lindt Cafe and brought the siege to an end.
For five years they have kept quiet in the face of fierce criticism about their superiors' decision not to enter the cafe earlier.
In their first media interview about the siege, the TOU officers gave a collective written response to questions, saying they did not want notoriety or to seek recognition.
Hinting at the toll the siege and the scrutiny that followed had on officers, the unit said for all their training, nothing could prepare them for the aftermath.
"You can train and prepare to resolve incidents such as these," the tactical officers said.
"But no one can actually train and prepare you to deal with outcomes of the siege and the resulting spotlight, the public scrutiny, reporting, comment, speculation and opinion, some of which was not based in fact."
On the day of the siege, the TOU was already deployed to other sieges across the state.
These jobs were their bread and butter; people with mental health issues or on drugs barricading themselves inside their homes either threatening to kill themselves or someone else.
But when the first TOU officers arrived at Martin Place just before 10am, they realised the hostage situation was unlike any other.
Every TOU officer on duty was deployed to the scene and those on leave were called in.
"From our arrival at the scene to the resolution of the Lindt Cafe siege, the TOU maintained the same mission - to save the lives of hostages," the unit said.
For the next 17 hours, tactical officers stood, guns raised and poised to enter the cafe at a moment's notice.
Armed with M4 carbine rifles and wearing balaclavas, the officers were the first faces hostages saw when they escaped the stronghold and burst onto Martin Place.
"Training and discipline play a significant role in maintaining this level of focus and awareness," the TOU said.
"Quite simply, its choosing the right people and training them to a high level because people's lives are dependent upon it."
As tensions rose inside the cafe and Monis grew increasingly agitated, the TOU knew their time to intervene was approaching.
"Some people, and certain reporting, seems to omit or forget the information available to us at the time," they said.
"Particularly with respect to the presence of an IED.
"There was an armed offender within the cafe with multiple hostages. This, taken together with the belief there was a probability we would have to enter and forcibly resolve the situation, posed a significant risk to everyone.
"With that in mind, and as the situation worsened, phone calls were made and text messages sent (to family). The rest is personal."
There were also quick glimpses of their children in photos on their mobile phones.
After hearing Monis fire a shot above the heads of fleeing hostages at 2:03am, the TOU were in a heightened state of readiness and waited for word from commanders to go inside.
That call didn't come until 2:13am, after Monis executed Mr Johnson.
Monis opened fire as the tactical officers from Alpha team entered his stronghold with officer B coping shrapnel to the face.
He and Officer A shot at Monis 22 times, eventually bringing the gunman to the ground.
Behind Alpha, the remaining officers had entered the cafe in a volley of flashbangs and noise.
"When it stopped, it was quite surreal and you think to yourself 'OK, you're not dead'," hostage Louisa Hope remembered.
"The next minute one of the tactical guys was yelling 'get up, get up' because they were thinking about the bomb (in Monis' backpack)."
Struck in the foot by bullet fragments, Ms Hope hopped towards the entry before officers A and B "scooped me up and ran me out onto Phillip St".
While the decision by senior police to delay the TOU's entry into the cafe has been heavily criticised, Ms Hope said the tactical officers displayed "a profound depth of bravery".
The next time Ms Hope met her rescuer was outside the inquest into the siege in 2016.
Officer B walked up to Ms Hope and shook her hand.
"At that moment I thought I would so trust you with my entire life. It is hard to express in words," she said.
Hostage Katrina Dawson, who was found bleeding heavily under furniture, was struck by a fragment from a police bullet and died.
The trajectory of that bullet was cruel in its randomness; hitting the leg of a chair and fragmenting before striking Ms Dawson.
In accepting the valour awards, the TOU reflected on the hostages, particularly Mr Johnson and Mrs Dawson.
"We recognise their bravery and sacrifice," the said.
"It is always our intent to resolve every situation peacefully with no loss of life. Sadly this did not occur."