The world was shocked and heartbroken when Crocodile Hunter Steve Irwin was tragically killed after being stabbed in the heart by a stingray, 15 years ago today.
An outpouring of grief followed with thousands of his fans visiting Australia Zoo after his death, paying their respects and bringing flowers, candles, stuffed animals and messages of support.
At least ten stingrays were found dead and mutilated on Australias shores in what was thought to be revenge attacks by his devastated fans – something Michael Hornby, the executive director of Steve’s conservation group, Wildlife Warriors, deeply condemned.
In a cruel twist of fate, Steve, 44, was not even supposed to be in the sea that day.
He had travelled to Australia’s Great Barrier Reef to shoot scenes for his programme Ocean’s Deadliest, but the shoot was called off due to bad weather.
Sitting in their hotel and finding themselves bored, Steve and his cameraman Justin Lyons and director John Stainton took a small inflatable boat out on Batt Reef off the coast of Port Douglas.
During their outing, he was on the look out for clips that could be used in his then-eight-year-old daughter Bindi’s series, Bindi the Jungle Girl.
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John said at the time: “He had been filming for his own show, Ocean’s Deadliest, but suddenly he said he was off to seek out some normally harmless stingrays.
“It should have been an innocent encounter for a TV show aimed at children.”
On the bottom of the ocean lay a 2.4m wide bull stingray, weighing in at around 220lbs.
Together, Steve and Justin climbed into the chest-deep water, expecting the usually placid creature to swim away as Steve approached, giving them the perfect shot.
But the animal behaved surprisingly aggressively, thought to be a reaction to being boxed in.
When Steve passed over the top of the stingray, it raised its razor-sharp tail, stabbing him “hundreds of strikes in a few seconds”.
Not realising the severity of the attack, Justin continued to film – but when he panned back to Steve and saw how much blood was surrounding him, he realised something had gone horribly wrong.
As the cameras rolled, Justin heaved Steve back onto their inflatable boat and sped back towards the main vessel, Croc One, as the star writhed in agony from the venom.
“I panned with the camera as the stingray swam away. I didn’t even know it had caused any damage. It wasn’t until I panned the camera back and Steve was standing in a huge pool of blood that I realised something had gone wrong,” he told Australia’s Network Ten in 2014.
It was widely reported at the time of Steve’s death that he pulled the barb out of his own chest – a move said to have cost him his life.
But according to Justin, that was wrong – as there was actually no barb left behind, and they initially thought he had just punctured a lung – still a horrifying injury but not necessarily deadly.
But back on the boat, both saw blood and fluid leaking from a two-inch wide gash across his heart and Steve knew he could not survive his injuries.
“He was having trouble breathing. Even if we’d been able to get him into an emergency ward at that moment we probably wouldn’t have been able to save him, because the damage to his heart was massive,” Justin said.
“As we’re motoring back I’m screaming at one of the other crew in the boat to put their hand over the wound and we’re saying to him things like, ‘Think of your kids, Steve, hang on, hang on, hang on.'”
But Steve, known for chuckling as he handled enormous crocodiles, was calm as ever.
“He just calmly looked up at me and said, ‘I’m dying.’ And that was the last thing he said,” Justin admitted.
Once back on Croc One, a second cameraman took over so Justin could give Steve mouth-to-mouth for a whole hour.
But when paramedics, arrived, they immediately declared Steve dead.
His final moments were all caught on camera, with the tape handed over to Queensland Police to help with their investigations.
Rumours immediately circulated that it would be shown on TV but Discovery Communications, the network that made Steve a star, insisted the footage would never see the light of day.
John who was also Steve’s best friend, saw the haunting recording and said it was too disturbing to ever be shown to the public.
In 2007, the authorities said they had destroyed all but one copy, which they gave to Steve’s devastated widow Terri, 57.
She had always known of her husband’s desire to have his death filmed, but for her, its existence was too much and she destroyed it without ever watching it.
However, according to Terri, there is still a copy sitting in a dusty police vault somewhere – with millions of people bizarrely searching online for the footage, never to find it.
After his tragic death, Terri, who shares children Bindi, 23 and Robert, 17, with the late wildlife presenter opened up about her husband’s chilling premonition that he would die young.
The conservationist and author told Australia’s ABC News: “You know he never thought he would have a long life.
“He just always kind of had this sense that his life would be cut short.”
Heartbreakingly, before he embarked on his final adventure, Steve had been toying with the idea of packing in his TV career in order to focus on his family life and children who were just eight and three at the time.
The late star’s wife recalled: “I remember him saying to me ‘I don’t think I’m going to film anymore; I think I’m just going to spend time with my kids.'”
Terri was in Tasmania with the couple’s children when she learned her husband’s tragic fate.
“I remember him at the airstrip waving goodbye. That was the last time we saw him,” she said.
But Steve’s children would go on to honour his legacy and follow in his footsteps.
His 22-year-old daughter Bindi, who welcomed daughter Grace Warrior Irwin Powell in March, is now a wildlife conservationist.
And Steve’s son Robert, now 16, is a wildlife photographer and has also hosted a variety of wildlife television shows.
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