Unprecedented show of grief for Australia's national hero

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The Independent Online

Amid extraordinary scenes of mourning, Australians struggled to come to terms with the death of Steve Irwin, the wildlife enthusiast and television star who died in a freak accident at the Great Barrier Reef on Monday.

Irwin, whose Crocodile Hunter documentaries had an audience of 220 million worldwide, was speared by a stingray while filming an underwater sequence. Video footage given to Queensland police by his producers showed the 44-year-old pulling the ray's serrated barb out of his chest before losing consciousness.

As federal parliament interrupted proceedings to pay tribute, traffic clogged the highway leading to Irwin's wildlife park on Queensland's Sunshine Coast, where fans gathered to lay flowers, light candles and write messages on pairs of khaki shorts - one of the ebullient conservationist's trademarks.

Some Australians compared his death with that of Diana, Princess of Wales, or John F Kennedy, and said they were having difficulty explaining it to their children, who had watched Irwin emerge unscathed from close encounters with man-eating crocodiles and venomous snakes.

Television networks changed their schedules to run tribute programmes, while newspapers were consumed by the death of one of the nation's favourite sons. Callers to talkback radio vented their grief and loss. The Australian newspaper devoted four broadsheet pages to the subject, and in an editorial described Irwin as "a man who seized life with both hands".

The Queensland premier, Peter Beattie, plans to offer Irwin's family a state funeral, and suggested that a national park might be renamed in his honour. Irwin's wife, Terri, and children, Bindi and Bob, were at home on the Sunshine Coast yesterday, having flown back from a trekking holiday in Tasmania.

The Prime Minister, John Howard, described Irwin as "a genuine, one-off, remarkable Australian individual" and a "great Australian icon". Mr Howard, who knew him personally, told MPs in Canberra that people were shocked by his death "in bizarre, tragic and in some respects quintessentially Australian circumstances".

Irwin's face was familiar in scores of countries, thanks to the Discovery Network, which picked up his show 10 years ago. The network is planning to air a marathon screening of his work, and to name a new conservation fund after him.

Irwin was particularly popular in the US, where he was an unofficial ambassador who "represented those things our citizens find most appealing about Australia", the US embassy said.

Fans in America, the UK and India were among those who left entries in an online guestbook opened by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC). Australian news websites struggled to keep up with demand, with the ABC site shutting down briefly and The Sydney Morning Herald reporting a 70 per cent increase in traffic. High-profile fans included the Oscar-winning actor Russell Crowe, who said yesterday that Irwin "was and remains the ultimate wildlife warrior".

Busloads of mourners descended on Irwin's Australia Zoo, which he built up from a small reptile park opened by his parents in the 1970s, leaving bouquets and sympathy notes outside the gates. "Mate, you made the world a better place," read one message.

Queensland Police Superintendent Michael Keating said the video footage showed that Irwin was not "intimidating or threatening" the stingray, a normally placid species. Marine experts speculated that the creature felt trapped.

John Stainton, his manager and friend, said he was struggling to come to terms with the way he died. Irwin "just seemed to have a charmed life", he said.