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Irwin given befitting farewell

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Beerwah: (Reuters): A khaki-clad choir, Hollywood stars and thousands of ordinary Australians bid farewell to ''Crocodile Hunter'' Steve Irwin at a memorial service at the famous TV naturalist's ''Crocoseum'' today. The service, broadcast live around Australia as well as across Asia and the United States, brought the nation to a standstill 16 days after Irwin, 44, was killed when the serrated barb from a stingray's tail pierced his heart. ''Please don't grieve for Steve, he's at peace now, but I'd like you to grieve for the animals, for the animals have lost the best friend they ever had, and so have I,'' Irwin's father Bob told the service.

A koala slumbered in a gum tree next to the stage and Irwin's tearful US-born wife Terri held their young son Robert in her lap as Irwin's family -- all wearing Irwin's trademark khaki shorts and shirts -- said their public goodbye. ''My daddy was my hero, he was always there for me when I needed him,'' Irwin's eight-year-old daughter Bindi said after walking onto the ''Crocoseum'' stage to a standing ovation. ''We filmed together, caught crocodiles together and loved being in the bush together. I want to help endangered wildlife just like he did,'' she said, her finger running over the words as she read her farewell. Irwin's family and friends held a private funeral at his beloved Australia Zoo 11 days ago, telling stories around a campfire.

His 46 ''Crocodile Hunter'' documentaries were watched by 200 million people around the world and his death prompted an international outpouring of grief, clogging Web sites while fans piled floral tributes outside his zoo. Politicians, actors, champion boxers and football stars were among a crowd of about 5,000 at the ''Crocoseum'', the centrepiece of the zoo in tropical Queensland state. Australian folk singer John Williamson led fans and a khaki-clad choir in a rousing rendition of some of Irwin's favourite songs, including the Australian hit ''True Blue'', in a largely upbeat service. Taped tributes were played from Irwin's Oscar-winning actor friend Russell Crowe, Hollywood stars Kevin Costner and Cameron Diaz, and US singer Justin Timberlake. Diaz and talk-show host Larry King said Irwin had an uncanny ability to reach children.

''America just flipped for him, every kid was in love with the idea of being able to be him,'' Diaz said. Irwin grew up around wild animals, trapping crocodiles and releasing them in his parent's reptile park that would later become Australia Zoo, but never gained any professional degrees. University of Queensland animal researcher Professor Craig Franklin said the university was about to award Irwin an adjunct chair for his work with crocodiles when it learned of his death. ''Professor Steve Irwin,'' Franklin declared.

Prime Minister John Howard was also among the dignitaries at the farewell and praised Irwin's zest for life, telling the crowd Australia had lost a remarkable man. Crowe said from New York that Irwin's death ''was completely unfair''. ''We've all lost a friend, we've lost a champion,'' Crowe said. In a final tribute, Australia Zoo staff spelled out Irwin's catchphrase ''Crikey'' in yellow flowers as Irwin's truck was driven from the ''Crocoseum'' for the last time to end the service.

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