When Steve Irwin was 6 years old, he caught a common brown venomous snake. While most kids (and adults!) would shudder at the very thought of a deadly creature, it lit a spark for the young Australian. Three years later, his passion for interacting with wildlife was in full force, as he helped reign in problem crocodiles by wrestling them into a boat.
Irwin’s love for all creatures — and his knack for being able to handle them so skillfully — soon translated into a career. In 1991, he started managing Beerwah Reptile and Fauna Park, which his parents had run since 1970, and eventually changed the name to the Australia Zoo. His larger-than-life enthusiastic personality also paved the way to global television fame, most notably in the TV documentary series The Crocodile Hunter from 1997 to 2004.
By July 2006, Irwin was on top of the world. He was married to the love of his life, American Terri Irwin (née Raines), and dad to daughter Bindi and son Robert — plus he and Terri had just plotted out a 10-year plan for Australia Zoo.
So when he took off to film a documentary in Queensland's Batt Reef, it just seemed like another adventure. He had already hosted a 2001 special called The Ten Deadliest Snakes in the World, so the fact that this one was called Ocean’s Deadliest didn’t faze him one bit — after all, he was committed to spreading the word about compassion for all creatures.
“I believe that the time has come where if we don't get animals into people's hearts, they're going to go extinct,” he told Larry King in 2004. “We're running out of time right now.”
Little did he know that it would be an ocean creature — one that’s not even considered to be all that dangerous — that would ultimately take his life in a freak ocean accident on September 4, 2006, at the age of 44.
Irwin and his friend were killing time during a rain delay when they discovered the eight-foot-wide stingray
While various accounts spread about his unbelievable death, ultimately it was the one person by his side that day who shared the details of the devastating day on Australia’s morning show Studio 10, eight years later in 2014.
Cameraman Justin Lyons was one of Irwin’s closest confidantes. They had worked together for 15 years and Irwin considered him his “best mate” and “right-hand man.” “We were very close,” Lyons said on the show.
He also knew how excited Irwin was to work on this particular documentary where they would come face to face with the ocean’s deadliest creatures, like sharks and sea snakes. “[It’s] all the things that would normally make people cringe, this is what Steve loved, so he was very excited about it,” Lyons recalled.
They were about eight days into the shoot and were on the search for tiger sharks, but hit a patch of bad weather. “Steve was like a caged tiger when he couldn’t do something, particularly on a boat, ” Lyon said. “So he said, ‘Let’s go and do something,’ so we jumped into the inflatable [boat] and off we went to look for something to do.”
It didn’t take long for them to find a gigantic eight-foot-wide stingray that would be perfect footage for another project they had in the pipeline. Like they had so many times before, they made a plan, and got ready to shoot in the chest-deep waters.
“Stingrays are normally very calm. If they don’t want you around them, they’ll swim away — they’re very fast swimmers,” Lyons explained. Things were going well and they figured they’d do one last shot. The stingray was between the two of them and Irwin would swim toward the camera and Lyons would film the ray swimming away.
The stingray's barb 'went through his chest like a hot knife through butter'
But things didn’t go as planned. “All of a sudden, it propped on its front and started stabbing wildly with its tail, hundreds of strikes in a few seconds,” Lyons remembers, noting that the “powerful” animals have been around for 60 million years. “It probably thought Steve’s shadow was a tiger shark, who feeds on them pretty regularly, so it started to attack him.”
Even under those circumstances, Lyons focused on his work. “We had this rule that if Steve was ever hurt or injured, that we had to keep filming no matter what,” he said in the interview.
It wasn’t until Lyons turned back that he realized the tail strikes had gone straight into Irwin. “Steve was standing in a huge pool of blood that I realized something had gone wrong,” Lyons said.
The first priority was to get out of the water since the blood would surely attract sharks. While some reports said that the stingray's barb was pierced into Irwin’s body and he pulled it out himself, Lyons clarifies that didn’t happen. “It’s a jagged sharp barb and it went through his chest like a hot knife through butter,” the witness described.
Initially, Irwin thought it punctured his lung. All they could tell was that there was a two-inch injury right over his heart with blood pouring out.
“He had an extraordinary threshold for pain, so I knew that when he was in pain that it must have been painful,” Lyons said. “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.”
Irwin’s last words were 'I’m dying'
They managed to get Irwin back into the inflatable boat, with one crew member keeping his hand over the wound and Lyons reminding Irwin to think of his kids: “He just sort of calmly looked up at me and said, ‘I’m dying’ — and that was the last thing he said.”
When they got back to the main boat called Croc 1, Lyons started CPR on him. “There’s always hope,” Lyons admitted. “We hoped for a miracle. I literally did CPR on him for over an hour.”
But when they finally got him to medics, the prognosis was clear. “They pronounced him dead within 10 seconds of looking at him,” Lyons said.
Stingrays are usually the 'pussycats of the ocean'
After the tragedy, critics came out and said Irwin must have been behaving irresponsibly for something to go so wrong. But toxicologist Jamie Seymour was also on board Croc 1 that day and says that’s simply not true. “They weren't there, they didn't know what happened,” Seymour told WBUR’s Endless Thread.
In fact, even though they were there to look for the tiger sharks, Seymour and Irwin had specifically talked about the potential damage that a stingray’s tail could do as well. “It was just a really bad accident — if he’d been five feet one side or coming from another direction or the sun had been somewhere else, wouldn’t have happened…by and large, these things are referred to as pussycats of the ocean. They’re not an issue, but just under some circumstances, it goes wrong.”
Daughter Bindi says 'it’s like losing a part of your heart'
His beloved daughter Bindi was only 8 years old at the time and Robert was just 2. “I remember people coming up to me and saying, ‘I’m sorry for your loss, sweetheart. Time heals all wounds.’ But that’s just not true,” Bindi told People in 2018. “It’s like losing a part of your heart, and when you’ve lost that, you never get it back.”
Knowing how much his children meant to him, Lyons made sure they were in his final thoughts — but ultimately, it was a fate no one expected. “He was so good with animals nothing was going to get him,” Lyons added. “We thought he was gonna live forever but it would always be a crazy silly accident, and as it turns out that's exactly what it was.”