Australia’s famed “Crocodile Hunter” Steve Irwin knew he was dying after a huge stingray stabbed him in the chest hundreds of times, the only witness to the fatal 2006 attack said in his first detailed public account of the conservationist’s death.
“We’re saying to him things like, ‘Think of your kids, Steve – hang on, hang on, hang on,”’ Justin Lyons, Irwin’s cameraman, told Australian television.
“And he just sort of calmly looked up at me and said, ‘I’m dying.’ And that was the last thing he said,” Mr Lyons added.
In the nearly eight years since Irwin’s death, Mr Lyons has said little publicly about the fatal encounter with the stingray. He said he now wanted to clarify what happened to counter reports that Irwin pulled the stingray’s barb from his own chest.
“The stories at the time of Steve’s death – none of them were accurate because no-one else was there,” Mr Lyons said in the interview yesterday. “And that always bothered me.”
He was also speaking after just finishing a documentary, E-Motion, which examines the impact that repressing negative emotions can have.
“I thought that it was a great way to illustrate my experience with Steve; holding on to these traumatic events can be very, very bad,” he said. “I’m happy that I’ve finally spoken about it publicly. It has been a weight on my shoulders.”
Mr Lyons still remembers the day he lost his friend, who rose to fame through his television series, the Crocodile Hunter. The two were filming a wildlife documentary on the Great Barrier Reef when they spotted an 8ft-wide stingray.
They had been filming it for several minutes in chest-deep water and decided to try to get one final shot of the stingray swimming away.
Suddenly, the huge fish began wildly stabbing Irwin with the barb on its tail – hundreds of strikes within seconds, Mr Lyons said.
The barb went through his chest “like a hot knife through butter,” piercing his heart, he said. “It probably thought that Steve’s shadow was a tiger shark, which feeds on them very regularly,” he explained.
“I didn’t even know it had caused any damage. It wasn’t until I panned the camera back that Steve was standing in a huge pool of blood that I realised something had gone wrong.”
Mr Lyons and his crew threw Irwin into their boat and put pressure on the gash over his heart, which was seeping blood, and Mr Lyons performed cardio-pulmonary resuscitation (CPR).
He said: “We hoped for a miracle. I did CPR on him for over an hour before the medics came, but they pronounced him dead within ten seconds of looking at him.”
Irwin, 44, left a wife, Terri, and two young children.
Another cameraman filmed attempts to save him, following Irwin’s orders that anything that happened to him during a shoot should be recorded. Mr Lyons said he did not know what had happened to the footage, and did not think it should be shown: “Never. Out of respect for his family, I would say never.”
The fact that Irwin – notorious for his close encounters with crocodiles, sharks and other dangerous animals – died after a run-in with a normally docile sea creature shocked the public. But Mr Lyons said he always had a sense his friend would meet an unusual end.
“It was never going to be a croc or a shark,” he said. “He was so good with animals.”