CAIRNS, Australia — Steve Irwin was videotaped pulling a poisonous stingray barb from his chest in his last moments of life, officials said Tuesday, as tributes poured in for TV’s “Crocodile Hunter.”
Police said there was nothing suspicious about Irwin’s death and no evidence he provoked the animal. Irwin, 44, was stabbed through the heart on Monday while snorkeling with a 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 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 Cairns, where Irwin’s body was taken for an autopsy.
Queensland state 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 have said the stingray may have felt trapped between the cameraman and the TV star. Irwin, the popular host of “Crocodile Hunter,” rose to fame by getting dangerously close to crocodiles, snakes and other beasts.
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.”
Parliament took a break from the business of running the country to pay tribute to Irwin, whose body was being 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.
Irwin’s American wife Terri, Bindi and their son Bob, almost 3, 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.
'Our wildlife warrior'
At the park, hundreds of people filed past the entrance laying floral bouquets and handwritten condolence messages. Khaki shirts — a trademark of Irwin — were laid out for people to sign.
“Mate, you made the world a better place,” read one poster left at the gate. “Steve, our hero, our legend, our wildlife warrior,” read another. “I thought you were immortal. How I wish that was true,” said a third.
The park opened Tuesday because it was what Irwin would have wanted, said Gail Gipp, an animal health employee.
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.
Experts differed on the number of human deaths caused by stingrays — anywhere from 3 to 17 — though they agreed that they were extremely rare.
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