Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Thousands Remember the 'Crocodile Hunter'

Sept. 20, 2006 — Friends and fans, including Hollywood stars and Australia's prime minister, bid farewell to "Crocodile Hunter" Steve Irwin on Wednesday at a service that veered from poignant tributes to belly laughs.

Irwin's 8-year-old daughter, Bindi, hailed him as her hero; his father, Bob, asked people to end their grieving, and fans were invited to laugh at his television antics one more time.

The ceremony was carried live on three national television networks and at least one radio station. Flags on the Sydney Harbor Bridge and throughout Irwin's home state of Queensland flew at half-staff, and giant television screens were set up for people to watch the service.

Prime Minister John Howard was among the 5,000 people who attended the ceremony at the "Crocoseum," the small stadium in Irwin's wildlife park where he regularly put on crocodile-feeding shows.

"Steve Irwin touched the hearts of Australians and touched the hearts of millions around the world in a very special way," Howard said.

In a recorded video message from New York, Oscar-winning actor Russell Crowe said: "It was way too soon for all of us. We have lost a friend, a champion."

Irwin, 44, died Sept. 4 when a stringray's barb pierced his chest while he filmed a TV show on the Great Barrier Reef. His family held a private funeral service for him on Sept. 9 at the family-owned park, Australia Zoo.

As expected, there was one empty seat at Steve Irwin's personal stadium — symbolically set aside for the late conservationist himself. On the stage sat Irwin's widow, Terri, and their two children, Bindi, and Bob, 2 — all dressed in Irwin's favorite khaki. It was their first public appearance since Irwin's death.

"Please do not grieve for Steve, he's at peace now," Bob Irwin said. "Grieve for the animals. They have lost the best friend they ever had, and so have I."

Bindi told the crowd at the ceremony that "my Daddy was my hero."

"He was always there for me when I needed him. He listened to me and taught me so many things. But most of all he was fun," she said.

There were lighter moments, including several video clips of Irwin's in-your-face antics that drew laughs and applause from the crowd.

Most popular were out-takes and bloopers from his TV program, showing Irwin falling out of boats, getting bitten by lizards and forgetting his lines.

At the end of the ceremony, Irwin's utility vehicle, packed with camping gear and his favorite surfboard, was driven from the stadium — through an honor guard of Australia Zoo employees.

After the truck left the stadium, a group of employees spelled out Irwin's catchword "Crikey" in yellow flowers on the ground.

As part of the public memorial entitled "He Changed Our World," actress Cameron Diaz said in a video presentation that Irwin was incredibly popular in the United States.

"America just flipped for him," said Diaz. "Every kid was in love with the idea of being him."

Actor Kevin Costner said in the video that Irwin was "fearless ... He let us see who he was. That is being brave in today's society."

Separately from the service, marine explorer Jean-Michel Cousteau said that, while he mourned Irwin's death, he disagreed with the Australian's hands-on approach to nature television.

He said he respected Irwin's environmental message, but noted that Irwin would "interfere with nature, jump on animals, grab them, hold them, and have this very, very spectacular, dramatic way of presenting things."

"It sells, it appeals to a lot people, but I think it's very misleading," Cousteau said in Los Angeles. "You don't touch nature, you just look at it."

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