Irwin pulled stingray barb from his chest

Ian Gerard and Tony Koch

September 05, 2006

A LIFE-long friend of Steve Irwin today told how the Crocodile Hunter pulled a deadly stingray barb from his own chest before losing consciousness and dying.

Friend John Stainton said he had viewed footage of his friend's last moments and the images were "shocking".

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

"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. That was it. The cameraman had to shut down."

The footage of the fatal attack on the Great Barrier Reef has been handed to Queensland police as fans worldwide come to grips with the "freak" death.

Irwin, 44, was killed almost instantly when the stingray stabbed him in the heart with its poisonous 20cm barb as he snorkelled off Port Douglas, in north Queensland, yesterday morning.

As tributes and salutes poured in from around the world, Queensland Premier Peter Beattie said  Irwin would get a state funeral if that's what his family wanted.

On the election campaign trail in Hervey Bay, Mr Beattie said the Governemnt was considering the possibility of naming a national park after the flamboyant naturalist.

"We want to make certain that ... there's a fitting long-term tribute to Steve Irwin and it may well be we can do all sorts of things like name a national park, we could have particular awards, all sorts of things," the Premier said.

Irwin's American-born wife, Terri, was trekking in Tasmania's Cradle Mountain and Lake St Clair National Park when the news broke of her husband's death and last night flew back to Queensland with her two children Bindi, 8, and Bob, 2.

The diveboat's owner Peter West also saw the footage.

"There was no blood in the water, it was not that obvious ... something happened with this animal that made it rear and he was at the wrong position at the wrong time and if it hit him anywhere else we would not be talking about a fatality," said Mr West. 

Irwin was shooting a documentary on dangerous marine life, in shallow water at Batt Reef, about 32 nautical miles offshore, at about 11am.

Tributes poured in from around the world for Irwin, a renowned environmentalist who was estimated to be earning more than $4million a year from his Queensland reptile park, Australia Zoo.

Footage of the attack shows Irwin swimming above a 2.5m stingray before it turns on him and sends a poisonous barb through his heart.

Irwin was pulled from the water by a cameraman and a crewman, put on an inflatable tender and taken to a support boat about 500m away.

Crewmembers say he was barely conscious in the minutes after the sting and died as his production team rushed him to his vessel, Croc One, and to a nearby island for emergency treatment.

A charter dive boat crew desperately tried to revive him on the beach, but were unsuccessful and he was pronounced dead shortly afterwards by Queensland Rescue Service officers, who had flown to the area by helicopter.

Irwin's body was last night flown to Cairns where a post-mortem examination this morning confirmed Irwin was killed when the poisonous barb on the stingray's tail pierced his chest. Police have seized all available evidence and interviewed witnesses in order to prepare a report for the Coroner.

A coronial inquest is expected.

Producer, director and life-long friend John Stainton yesterday said Irwin did not provoke the stingray and was simply swimming above it when he was attacked.

"He came over the top of a stingray and the stingray barb went up and into his chest and into his heart," Stainton said.

"It's likely that he possibly died instantly when the barb hit him, and I hope he felt no pain."

One of Irwin's contemporaries, internationally known cameraman and spearfisherman Ben Cropp, was in his own boat off Port Douglas when Irwin was killed.

"I have just spoken to a cameraman friend who was there and has seen the footage," Mr Cropp told The Australian last night.

"He was up in the shallow water, probably 1.5m to 2m deep, following a bull ray which was about a metre across the body - probably weighing about 100kg, and it had quite a large spine.

"The cameraman was filming in the water."

Mr Cropp said the stingray was spooked and went into defensive mood.

"It probably felt threatened because Steve was alongside and there was the cameraman ahead, and it felt there was danger and it baulked.

"It stopped and went into a defensive mode and swung its tail with the spike.

"Steve unfortunately was in a bad position and copped it.

"I have had that happen to me, and I can visualise it - when a ray goes into defensive, you get out of the way.

"Steve was so close he could not get away, so if you can imagine it - being right beside the ray and it swinging its spine upwards from underneath Steve - and it hit him.

"I have seen that sort of reaction with rays - with their tail breaking the water, such is the force."

Internationally renowned jellyfish sting expert Jamie Seymour was on board Irwin's boat at the time.

Irwin had decided yesterday morning to shoot a segment of film on stingrays for a new television program that will be hosted by his daughter, Bindi.

Surf Lifesavers national marine stinger adviser Lisa-Ann Gershwin said there had only been 17 fatal stingray attacks worldwide.

"I think it's just an extraordinary freak accident that has happened to his heart," she said.

"A lot of people will be afraid by this, but they need to keep in mind that this was a freak accident, it was a terrible tragedy but it is not common."

Dr Gershwin said stingray stings to the legs or arms were common and, while painful, were not normally considered dangerous. She said there were many different types of stingrays, with barbs on their tails up to 30cm long, and they poisoned victims with a range of toxins.

Mr West said the barb was like a "very rough knife" and while fatal stingray stings had been known to occur, filming and swimming alongside the animal was commonplace among marine filmmakers.

Mr Cropp said he was told that the strike was "close to the heart and Steve had a cardiac arrest".

"At first they treated him as being wounded, but he didn't survive unfortunately," he said.

"The second boat in attendance raced in to give assistance and they radioed for help.

"They went into Low Isle and met the chopper which took Steve's body out."

In September 2004, Mr Cropp was attacked by a tiger shark on Bott Reef. "The rays in Australia and particularly in the north are not like those on the Cayman Islands, which are very quiet and allow people to ride on their backs," he said.

"At this time of the year they are on the lookout for tiger sharks and are very frisky.

"They are not aggressive. In fact they are very timid, but they defend themselves by throwing their tail spine upwards, and there is a spike on the tip about eight inches long which they can use like a dagger."

With agencies


Highlights of Irwin's career By The Associated Press September 4, 2006

Some key dates in the life of Steve Irwin, the television presenter known around the world as "The Crocodile Hunter," who died Monday:
Feb. 22, 1962 -- Stephen Robert Irwin is born near Melbourne.
Feb. 22, 1968 -- Irwin receives a 12-foot-long scrub python for his 6th birthday.
1980s -- Irwin volunteers for Queensland's crocodile relocation program, trapping problem crocodiles.
1991: Irwin takes over his father's reptile park when his parents retire and begins building Australia Zoo into a tourist icon.
1991 -- Irwin marries Terri Raines, a tourist from Eugene, Ore. Footage from their honeymoon becomes the first episode of "The Crocodile Hunter" in Australia.
1992 -- "The Crocodile Hunter" is picked up by the Discovery Network, shown worldwide.
2001 -- Irwin makes a cameo in the Eddie Murphy film "Dr. Dolittle 2," in which he attempts to wrestle an alligator and loses an arm.
2002 -- Irwin releases his first feature film "The Crocodile Hunter: Collision Course."
Oct. 2003 -- Prime Minister John Howard invites Irwin to lunch with President Bush in Canberra.
Jan. 2004 -- Irwin provokes an international outcry after being filmed holding his 1-month-old son, Bob, while feeding a snapping crocodile. J
une 2004 -- Irwin is investigated for a possible criminal breach of Australian wildlife laws after allegedly clowning around with whales and penguins while filming a documentary in Antarctica. He is cleared of wrongdoing.
Sept. 4, 2006 -- Irwin is fatally stabbed in the chest by a stingray barb while filming a television segment on Australia's Great Barrier Reef