He died as he lived
Cameron Atfield, Brendan O'Malley and Jamie Walker
September 05, 2006 12:00am
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STEVE Irwin, the boy from Beerwah, lived the life of a legend, becoming an internationally famous figure. Don't miss Brian Cassey's video of Steve's friend John Stainton and his moving tribute to his lost mate.
STEVE Irwin was his usual irrepressible self – like a caged lion, his great friend John Stainton said – after the weather turned nasty on the Great Barrier Reef.
He could have put those booted feet up, had another cup of tea, but that wasn't the Crocodile Hunter's way. If he couldn't work on his latest documentary on predators of the sea, then Irwin said he'd shoot some footage for a series featuring his precocious eight-year-old daughter Bindi.
Mr Stainton hardly gave it a thought. They had taken so many risks together, come through all manner of tight spots, that this seemed like just another day at the office at Batt Reef, northeast of Port Douglas in north Queensland. Instead, it was the day Irwin's charmed life came to an end in the most unlikely and saddest of ways.
Just after 11am, Irwin's heart was punctured by a bull ray's barb as he and a cameraman snorkelled in the shallows off Batt Reef. By noon he had been pronounced dead.
The water was alive with stingrays, some of them 2m across. Irwin singled out one of the creatures and dived down, possibly intending to latch on, the sort of derring-do that had earned him a world-wide audience of hundreds of millions and made him the most famous Australian alive.
The cameraman realised that Irwin was in trouble only when his blood began to stain the water.
Chances are Irwin, 44, was already beyond help. The stingray's barb had knifed through his chest, piercing his heart.
A distraught Mr Stainton said later Irwin had probably died instantly, so catastrophic was the injury.
"I don't think he would have felt any pain," Mr Stainton said. "It was a very unfortunate accident the way it happened. He came over the top of the ray and the barb came up."
Irwin was taken by dinghy to nearby Low Isles, an island nature reserve, where desperate attempts were made to resuscitate him. An emergency helicopter from Cairns reached the scene just after noon.
"It became clear fairly soon that he had non-survivable injuries," said Ed O'Loughlin, the Emergency Management Queensland doctor who tended Irwin. "He had a penetrating injury to the left front of his chest. He had lost his pulse and wasn't breathing."
News of Irwin's death was last night leading television news bulletins across the US, where the success of his Crocodile Hunter television series and spin-off movies had made him a household name.
As tributes flowed for his work as an environmentalist and wildlife advocate, Prime Minister John Howard indicated that Irwin could be honoured with a state funeral.
"He was a larrikin, yes, but he was a really warm-hearted bloke as well and he cared passionately about Australia and he cared passionately about the Australian environment," Mr Howard said. "I really do feel Australia has lost a wonderful and colourful son."
Opposition Leader Kim Beazley described Irwin as a "great ambassador for Australian larrikin values".
But Premier Peter Beattie said he would wait for the family to express its wishes before announcing whether there would be formal state recognition for Irwin.
The fatal encounter with the stingray is understood to have been captured on film.
Marine documentary maker Ben Cropp, who was also diving on the Great Barrier Reef yesterday, said the injury was inflicted by a bull ray.
"In this case he was swimming alongside a bull ray, a big black ray and the cameraman would have been in front, filming him," Cropp revealed, after speaking with a member of Irwin's production crew.
"Steve got probably maybe a bit too close to the ray, and with the cameraman in front, the ray must have felt sort of cornered."
He said the ray went into a defensive mode and lashed out with its tail, which has a considerable spike.
"Unfortunately Steve was directly in its path and he took a fatal wound," he said.
Irwin's wife, Terri, was in Tasmania bushwalking yesterday and had to be located by police to be told of his death. The body was taken to a Cairns mortuary, where it will undergo post-mortem examination before being released to the family.
Recalling his last conversation with Irwin, on board his launch Croc One yesterday morning over a cup of tea, Mr Stainton said they had been thrilled with a sequence shot on Sunday of Irwin cavorting with sea snakes.
But the weather was poor and Irwin, "like a caged lion" aboard the boat, had decided to shoot some footage for Bindi's show to fill in the time.
"It's the worst day of my life when you think about the documentaries we've made, all the dangerous situations we've been in," said Mr Stainton, who had worked with Irwin since his television career took off in the early '90s, making him a multi-millionaire.
In addition to Bindi, Irwin had a son, Bob, 3, with his American-born wife. Staff and visitors to their Australia Zoo complex, north of Brisbane, were leaving flowers and cards of sympathy in an outpouring of affection for Irwin.
News of Irwin's death reached Federal Parliament mid-afternoon yesterday, stunning MPs already farewelling former Democrat leader Don Chipp.
Mr Howard conferred briefly with a clearly emotional senior Queensland Liberal Mal Brough shortly before 2.30pm as the condolence motion for Mr Chipp was reaching an end.
Mr Brough, a close friend of Mr Irwin who lived in Mr Brough's Caboolture-based electorate, left the chamber while the news rippled along the front bench.