'Freakish' Accident Kills Crocodile Hunter

ByABC News via via logo

Sept. 4, 2006 — -- Whenever Steve Irwin, known to his fans worldwide as the "Crocodile Hunter," made his way onto the TV, it was virtually impossible to change the channel.

His energy, accent, trademark catchword "Crikey!" and the fearless way he handled the most daunting of crocodiles -- calling them beauties and Sheilas -- captivated his audience.

Irwin often dodged danger to show that there was nothing in nature worth fearing, because he believed that behind the sharpest teeth glimmered a misunderstood soul.

Irwin's friend, zoologist Jack Hanna, said there was more to the Crocodile Hunter than his outrageous persona.

"People think of him as this sort of wild, crazy guy. … This image on television," Hanna said in an interview with "Good Morning America" today.

"But he really was quite an expert in the field. The guy was incredible. His knowledge was incredible."

On an ocean dive off the coast of northeastern Australia, nature finally caught up with the 44-year-old.

While filming a new documentary, the Animal Planet star was stung in the heart by a stingray's sharp, toxin-filled barbs.

Paramedics were helicoptered in, but it was too late.

Doctors believe Irwin likely died instantly.

Wildlife experts and doctors say it is extremely unusual for a stingray injury to be fatal.

"It's freakish from the standpoint that I've been filming in the Great Barrier Reef. I've filmed stingrays all over the world," Hanna said. "People may think they're an animal that attacks. They're not."

Irwin said once he wanted to be a "wildlife warrior."

"All I ever wanted to do was be Tarzan, only a reality-based Tarzan, who is actually out there rescuing wildlife," he said.

It was that gusto and confidence that made Irwin a household name with a worldwide audience estimated at about 2 million.

Even when the cameras stopped rolling, he and his wife, Terri, remained dedicated protectors of the Outback.

With their two children in tow, they ran the Australia Zoo.

Irwin's showmanship sometimes caused controversy.

In 2004, he was criticized for bringing his newborn baby Robert within feet of a snapping crocodile.

He stood by his actions when he spoke to Diane Sawyer on "Good Morning America" in 2004.

When Sawyer asked him what he feared the most, Irwin's answer wasn't venom or teeth, it was the animal within each of us.

"I'm most afraid of people," Irwin said. "The places where I go, the people factor is just so scary, you know, bad guys running around with guns and stuff. And, of course, the diseases. You know, I love to go with my family, but I can't take them where there's like malaria, typhoid, yellow fever."

Irwin is survived by wife Terri, also a dedicated conservationist; his daughter, Bindi Sue, 8; and his son, Bob, who will turn 3 in December.

Friends say that Irwin was gentle, kind and personable when the TV cameras were off.

"Steve Irwin is a very polite person," said Kevin Phillips, a dive master and friend.

"He is just like you and I. He will share a joke, have a bit of a yarn, poke some fun. He is a guy that truly, truly loves life."

Irwin once said that he was put on Earth to help conserve our wilderness, our oceans and wildlife.

Tragically, it was that unabashed passion that cut his life short.

"I will remember Steve Irwin as a friend, not only to me, but to all," Phillips said. "He is a great man and a true champion of the environment."

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