September 5, 2006

“Croc Hunter” pulled barb out of chest before death

By Paul Tait

SYDNEY (Reuters) - Fatally injured "Crocodile Hunter" Steve
Irwin pulled a stingray's serrated barb from his chest before
he lost consciousness and died, his manager said on Tuesday as
fans worldwide mourned the exuberant naturalist.

Hundreds of fans placed flowers outside his Australia Zoo
in Queensland state and wrote messages on khaki shirts, part of
his trademark uniform, as Irwin's body was flown home after
Monday's freak diving accident off Australia's northeast coast.

Officials offered Irwin's grieving family a state funeral
while news of his death on the Great Barrier Reef clogged
Internet news sites and ground some Web sites to a halt.

Police have been handed footage taken as Irwin, 44, filmed
what was to be his last documentary. It shows him swimming
above a stingray when it lashed out and speared him in the
heart with its barbed tail, manager John Stainton told

"He pulled it out and the next minute he's gone," he said.

"The cameraman had to shut down. It's a very hard thing to
watch because you're actually witnessing somebody die ... it's
terrible," Stainton said.

Police said it appeared Irwin was just watching the ray.

"There is no evidence that Mr Irwin was intimidating or
threatening the stingray," Queensland police spokesman Mike
Keating told reporters.

Marine experts say stingrays can deliver horrific,
agonizing injuries from the toxin-laden barbs, which can
measure up to 20 cm (8 in) in length and cause injuries like a
knife or bayonet.

"It's not the going in that causes the damage, it's the
coming out where those deep serrations kind of pull on the
flesh, and you end up with a very jagged tear which is quite a
pronounced injury," said Dr Bryan Fry, deputy director of the
Australian Venom Research Unit.


Australian Prime Minister John Howard interrupted
parliament on Tuesday to pay tribute.

"He was a genuine, one-off, remarkable Australian
individual and I am distressed at his death," Howard told

"We mourn his loss, we're devastated by the tragic
circumstances in which he has been taken from us and we send
our love and prayers to his grieving family," he said.

Film star Russell Crowe praised Irwin as the "ultimate
wildlife warrior."

Irwin's zoo kept its gates open Tuesday despite his death.

"He would have been kicking our butts if we decided to
close the zoo. It's a great chance for people to go in and see
his crocodiles, see what he loved," zoo worker Louise Martin

Environmental documentary maker Ben Cropp said Irwin was
swimming alongside a bull stingray, probably weighing around
100 kg (220 lb).

Stingrays are normally placid and only attack in
self-defence. But Irwin's cameraman was filming in front of it
and it probably became frightened and lashed out.

Stainton said the cameraman only became aware of the attack
when he noticed Irwin bleeding.

Millions had seen Irwin flirt with death many times as he
stalked and played with crocodiles, sharks, snakes and spiders.
Stainton said he was struggling to come to terms with the fact
that a stingray had killed his friend.

"He just seemed to have a charmed life," Stainton said.

Known for his catchphrase "Crikey" during close encounters
with animals, Irwin made almost 50 documentaries which appeared
on the cable TV channel Animal Planet.

U.S.-based television company Discovery Communications,
which produces Animal Planet, said it would set up a
conservation fund in honor of Irwin. It said the footage of
Irwin's fatal dive might never be broadcast.

Irwin's documentaries attracted a global audience of some
200 million people, many of them in the United States, and fans
from Guam to Glasgow jammed Web sites and news blogs. Many
asked how they were to explain Irwin's death to their children.

"Why did it have to be Steve Irwin," 11-year-old Daniel
told Australian Associated Press.

(Additional reporting by Michael Perry in SYDNEY)