'We've All Lost a Friend'
10/02/2006 at 01:00 AM EDT
Even before dawn on Sept. 20, mourners began to arrive at Queensland's Australia Zoo for the 9 a.m. public memorial service for beloved countryman Steve Irwin. Although his family had already held a private funeral at the zoo, which Irwin ran as both a tourist attraction and animal rescue mission, this goodbye was for those who loved him from afar. "I never met the bloke, but he felt like your mate," says Steve Rudd, 46, whose wife, Leanne, 42, waited 12 hours in line to get their tickets.
As the crowd filled the 5,500-seat "Crocoseum" to pay tribute to the 44-year-old adventurer who died Sept. 4 of a rare stingray attack, one seat remained notably empty. It was next to Irwin's wife, Terri, 42, and their two children, Bindi, 8, and Bob, 2. On it sat a baseball cap belonging to the man being honored. "We've all lost a friend, we've all lost a champion," said Russell Crowe, who is filming in New York but opened the service via video. Australian Prime Minister John Howard also spoke, calling Irwin a man who "touched the hearts of millions around the world in a very special way." Later, as images of the Crocodile Hunter flashed onscreen, folksinger John Williamson sang "True Blue"—an Irwin favorite ("Hey true blue, don't say you've gone ..."). Said Irwin's father, Bob, 66, in a press conference afterward: "I was coping fairly well until John sang, then I fell apart."
As did the whole crowd when young Bindi, who will appear with Terri in a 20/20 interview with Barbara Walters Sept. 27, bravely took the stage. With a large picture of Irwin looking over her shoulder, the small, composed girl read from a piece of paper she held, tracing each word with her finger: "My daddy was my hero.... When I see a crocodile, I will always think of him. I know that Daddy made this zoo so everyone could come and love the animals. Now it's our turn to help Daddy."