"I'm dying." Those were "Crocodile Hunter" Steve Irwin's final words, according to a cameraman who said he urged the wildlife icon to "think of his kids" and "hang on" after being stabbed by a stingray in a fatal, freak attack.
The cameraman, Justin Lyons, is said to be the sole witness to the Sept. 4, 2006, attack and captured the incident with his lens. But he does not believe the footage should ever be shared with the public.
Lyons' recollections were rocketing around the Internet on Monday morning. It underscored our enduring fascination with the Australian conservationist who sported a blond mullet and khakis as he traipsed the world in search of wild and dangerous animals. Irwin allowed us to channel our inner explorer by following along, and introduced the masses to his oft-used exclamation of astonishment: "Crikey!"
In what is being billed as a world exclusive interview, the underwater cameraman told Australia's Studio 10 that some of the details that were initially made public about Irwin's death were incorrect.
According to Lyons' account, he and the 44-year-old Irwin were about eight days into filming a series called "Ocean's Deadliest" when they found themselves in chest-deep water near Queensland, Australia. They came across a "massive" 8-foot-wide stingray. Despite their impressive size, stingrays are normally docile creatures that do not pose a threat.
The cameraman and Irwin shot some footage that they hoped to use for a different project, and were conferring on what they'd gotten so far. The pair decided to go back under water for "one last shot" of Irwin behind the stingray before it swam off into the ocean.
"I thought, 'This is going to be a great shot,'" Lyons recalled.
Then suddenly, and without warning, the creature attacked.
"It started stabbing wildly with its tail," Lyons recalled, "hundreds of strikes within a few seconds."
It all happened so quickly that Lyons did not immediately realize something had gone wrong.
"I panned with the camera as the stingray swam away. I didn't even know it had caused any damage," he said. "It wasn't until I panned the camera back... Steve was standing in a huge pool of blood."
This account contradicts earlier claims that Irwin had died after removing the stingray's barb after it had become lodged in the middle of his chest. That information was incorrect, Lyons said: "It didn't come out, Steve didn't pull it out."
Lyons said he did not realize the extent of Irwin's injuries. His first thought was that the pair needed to get out of the water quickly, lest they start attracting sharks. For his part, Irwin also seemed to think the damage was limited, telling Lyons: "It punctured me lung."
Within 30 seconds, the crew had Irwin on an inflatable boat heading back to the main vessel being used on the shoot. There, it soon became clear that Irwin was dying. "He was in extraordinary pain... The damage to his heart was massive."
Lyons described the frantic effort to keep Irwin alive. A crew member put pressure on the wound while he tried to calm his friend.
"I was saying to him things like, 'Think of your kids, Steve, hang on, hang on, hang on,'" he said. "He calmly looked up at me and said, 'I'm dying.' And that was the last thing he said... those were his final words."
The cameraman said he would later perform CPR on Irwin for nearly an hour while the main vessel took them closer to emergency workers. But it took professionals only seconds to look at Irwin and declare him dead.
Lyons said that within Irwin's circle, there was a sense that Irwin would meet his end in a "weird" way. But not by a dangerous creature such as a crocodile or shark, because Irwin was so adept at dealing with such wildlife.
"It was shocking," Lyons said of the way Irwin died. "It was probably always going to be something weird with Steve... it would always be a crazy, silly accident. And as it turns out that's exactly what it was."