September 5, 2006

Irwin Pulled Stingray Barb from Chest Before Death

By Michael Perry

SYDNEY -- Fatally injured by a stingray, Australian "Crocodile Hunter" Steve Irwin pulled its serrated barb out of his chest before losing consciousness and dying, the world-famous naturalist's manager said on Tuesday.

Video footage of the attack shows Irwin swimming above the stingray on the Great Barrier Reef on Monday when it lashed out and speared him in the heart with its barbed tail, manager John Stainton told reporters.

"It shows that Steve came over the top of the ray and the tail came up, and spiked him here (in the chest)," Stainton said after watching the footage.

"He pulled it out and the next minute he's gone. The cameraman had to shut down," he said.

"It's a very hard thing to watch because you're actually witnessing somebody die ... it's terrible."

Irwin, 44, the quirky naturalist who won worldwide acclaim as TV's khaki-clad "Crocodile Hunter," was filming a new documentary off Australia's northeastern coast when he was attacked.

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.

"The strongly serrated barb is capable of tearing and rendering flesh," said Dr Bryan Fry, deputy director of the Australian Venom Research Unit.

"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," Fry said.

News of Irwin's death shocked Australians and Irwin's millions of fans around the world. 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 parliament.

"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.


Environmental documentary maker Ben Cropp said video of the attack showed Irwin swimming alongside a bull stingray, probably weighing around 100 kg (220 lb). His cameraman was filming in front of the ray, which became frightened and lashed out.

Stingrays are usually placid and only attack in self-defense.

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.

"There's been a million occasions where both of us held our breath and thought we were lucky to get out of that one," Stainton said. "But he just seemed to have a charmed life."

Police said they had examined the footage and would prepare a report for the coroner appointed to determine the cause of death.

Film star Russell Crowe called Irwin the "ultimate wildlife warrior," adding: "He was the Australian we all aspire to be. He touched my heart. I believed in him. I'll miss him."

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, dubbed in one tribute a "modern-day Noah," and planned a marathon showing of his programs.

Discovery said the footage of Irwin's fatal dive might never be broadcast.

Australian newspapers paid tribute to Irwin on Tuesday, while fans including American tourists laid wreaths outside his Australia Zoo in tropical Queensland state.

"We thought he was Superman, that he was indestructible," said an editorial in Sydney's The Daily Telegraph.

"We were wrong"

(Additional reporting by Paul Tait in SYDNEY)