Irwin's last minutes of struggle caught on tape
From staff and wire reports
Steve Irwin's deadly encounter with a stingray was captured on dramatic videotape and shows TV's "Crocodile Hunter" pulling out the animal's poisonous barb that had pierced his heart moments before he died, officials said today.
Crocodile Hunter Steve Irwin, poses with a three-foot-long alligator at the San Francisco Zoo in 2002.
By Justin Sullivan, Getty Images
The beloved naturalist was being videotaped snorkeling above the beast for Ocean's Deadliest, a new TV documentary. Queensland Police Superintendent Michael Keating said the footage showed nothing suspicious about Irwin's death nor evidence that he provoked the animal. Police held the tape as evidence for a coroner's inquiry, a standard procedure in high-profile deaths or those caused by other than natural causes.
News of Irwin's death shocked his native Australia, and fans around the world poured out their grief and condolences.
Parliament interrupted its normal schedule so lawmakers could pay tribute to Irwin, whose body was flown home to Beerwah today from Cairns. State Premier Peter Beattie said Irwin would be afforded a state funeral if his family agreed.
"He was a genuine, one-off, remarkable Australian individual, and I am distressed at his death," Prime Minister John Howard said.
The colorful 44-year-old Irwin, who made a career out of getting dangerously close to deadly beasts, was killed while swimming in shallow water on Australia's Great Barrier Reef.
John Stainton, Irwin's manager who was among the crew on the reef and later also watched the videotape of the attack, described the "terrible" experience of watching a friend die.
"It shows that Steve came over the top of the ray and the tail came up, and spiked him here (in the chest), and he pulled it out and the next minute he's gone," Stainton told reporters in the Queensland state city of Cairns, where Irwin's body had been taken after the accident for an autopsy.
Human deaths caused by stingrays are extremely rare.
Stainton said that Irwin was in his element in the Outback, but that he and Irwin had talked about the sea posing threats the star wasn't used to.
"If ever he was going to go, we always said it was going to be the ocean," Stainton said. "On land he was agile, quick-thinking (and) quick-moving, and the ocean puts another element there that you have no control over."
Immediately after the attack, Irwin was rushed to his nearby research vessel, the Croc One.
A doctor aboard the ship was unable to resuscitate Irwin, who was dead by the time a rescue helicopter arrived. "He died doing what he loved best and left this world in a happy and peaceful state of mind," Stainton said.
Irwin's American wife, Terri, and children returned late Monday from a trekking vacation in Tasmania to Australia Zoo, the wildlife park in Beerwah where the family lived. The couple, who met at Irwin's wildlife park in the Australian state of Queensland, have two children, Bindi Sue, 8, and Bob, 2.
Australia Zoo was open today — staff said it was what he would have wanted — but the mood was somber and most visitors were to a makeshift shrine of bouquets and handwritten condolence messages that emerged at the gate.
"Mate, you made the world a better place," read one poster left at the gate. "Steve, our hero, our legend, our wildlife warrior," read another. Khaki shirts — a trademark of Irwin — were laid out for people to sign.
Sue Neilen, Beerwah's only florist, said she has a "huge pile of orders" for flowers from conservation groups and the general public all over the world.
"Some people are telling us they've never bought flowers before to do this sort of thing, but they feel compelled to do it for Steve," Neilen said. "It's like when Lady Diana died."
Irwin — an adventurer famous for leaping onto untethered crocodiles and for his catchphrase "Crikey!" — rose to prominence when his 1992 Australian TV show was picked up by the Discovery Channel in 1996. He made his big-screen splash with 2002's The Crocodile Hunter: Collision Course. The TV show went into reruns in 2004 but remained one of the network's most popular programs, airing in 130 countries. Discovery announced plans for a marathon screening of Irwin's work and a wildlife fund in his name.
"Steve was beloved by millions of fans and animal lovers around the world and was one of our planet's most passionate conservationists," Billy Campbell, president of Discovery Networks, said in a statement.
The company said it would rename the garden space in front of its world headquarters building in Silver Spring, Md., to honor Irwin. Animal Planet also is planning a marathon of Crocodile Hunter shows, but the day has not been decided.
Irwin's daring encounters and on-camera exuberance not only brought him worldwide celebrity, but they also created a cottage industry of guerrilla-style conservationists whose close calls made wildlife shows a TV staple, particularly among children.
"I never pictured a croc killing him, but I never pictured a stingray doing it, either," says Jack Hanna, director emeritus of the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium in Ohio. "It's like me getting killed by a poodle."
"Steve might have been a showman, but he was a great conservationist," Hanna says. He notes that 14 years ago, before Irwin's international success, there were two nationally televised wildlife shows. Now there are 29.
"We can agree or disagree on how he taught conservationism," Hanna says. "I couldn't do what he did. But he did have a way of teaching. And in the end I remember him as a conservationist, because he really believed in what he did."
Irwin's exuberant style occasionally irked wildlife officials. In 2004, he caused an uproar by holding his infant son in one arm while feeding large crocodiles inside a zoo pen. Irwin said at the time there was no danger to the child, and authorities declined to charge Irwin with violating safety regulations.
Later that year, he was accused of getting too close to penguins, a seal and humpback whales in Antarctica while making a documentary. Irwin denied any wrongdoing, and an Australian government investigation recommended that no action be taken.
"I think (the criticism) was from misunderstanding him and how he grew up around these animals," says Maureen Smith, executive vice president and general manager of Animal Planet. "He was the real deal. He had a love of family and animals that transcended his show. He became a part of pop culture."
Stainton, fighting back tears in a televised news conference, called Irwin "a passionate conservationist and one of the proudest dads on the planet. " He would have said, "Crocs rule!"
Contributing: Scott Bowles from Los Angeles; Karen Thomas, Cathy Lynn Grossman and Douglas Stanglin from McLean, Va.; Lindsey Arkley from Melbourne, Australia; and the Associated Press.