CAIRNS, Australia (September 5, 2006) — Videotape of Steve Irwin’s last moments shows him pulling a poisonous stingray barb from his chest but no evidence that he had provoked the fish, officials said Tuesday, as tributes poured in for TV’s beloved “Crocodile Hunter.”
Irwin, 44, who made a career out of getting dangerously close to deadly beasts, was stabbed through the heart Monday while swimming with the stingray during filming of a new TV program on Australia’s Great Barrier Reef.
John Stainton, Irwin’s manager who was among the crew on the reef, said the fatal blow that came while Irwin was snorkeling was caught on videotape, and described viewing the footage as having 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 was taken for an autopsy.
Police were holding the tape as evidence for a coroner’s inquiry — a standard procedure in high-profile deaths or those caused by other than natural causes.
Experts agree human deaths caused by stingrays are extremely rare and speculate the stingray may have felt trapped between the cameraman and the TV star.
But Queensland Police Superintendent Michael Keating said there was no evidence Irwin threatened or intimidated the stingray, a normally placid species that only deploys its poisonous tail spines as a defense.
Stainton said 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, quick-moving and the ocean puts another element there that you have no control over.”
Irwin’s American wife, Terri, and two young children returned late Monday from a trekking vacation in Tasmania to Australia Zoo, the wildlife park where the family lived at Beerwah in Queensland’s southeast.
Australia Zoo was open Tuesday — staff said it was what he would have wanted — but the mood was somber and most visitors paid respects at a makeshift shrine of bouquets and handwritten condolence messages at the gate.
“Mate, you made the world a better place,” read one poster. “Steve, our hero, our legend, our wildlife warrior,” read another. Khaki shirts — a trademark of Irwin — were laid out for people to sign.
Parliament interrupted its normal schedule so lawmakers could pay tribute to Irwin, whose body was flown home Tuesday from Cairns. No funeral plans were announced but 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.
Irwin was propelled to global fame after his TV shows, in which he regularly wrestled with crocodiles and went face-to-face with poisonous snakes and other wild animals, were shown around world on the Discovery Channel.
The network announced plans for a marathon screening of Irwin’s work and a wildlife fund in his name.
“Rarely has the world embraced an animal enthusiast and conservationist as they did Steve Irwin,” Discovery Networks International President Dawn McCall said in a statement.