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New details emerge in death of SeaWorld Orlando trainer in orca incident

February 24, 2010 |  9:01 pm

Tilikum

ORLANDO, Fla. — A SeaWorld killer whale snatched a trainer from a poolside platform Wednesday and thrashed the woman around underwater, killing her in front of a horrified audience. It marked the third time the animal had been involved in a human death.

Distraught audience members were hustled out of the stadium immediately, and the park was closed.

Trainer Dawn Brancheau, 40, was one of the park's most experienced. Her sister said Brancheau wouldn't want anything done to the orca that killed her because she loved the animals like children.

Brancheau was rubbing Tilikum after a noontime show when the 12,000-pound killer whale grabbed her and pulled her into the water, said Chuck Tompkins, head of animal training at all SeaWorld parks. It was not clear if she drowned or died from the thrashing.

Because of his size and the previous deaths, trainers were not supposed to get into the water with Tilikum, and only about a dozen of the park's 29 trainers worked with him. Brancheau had more experience with the 30-year-old killer whale than most.

"We recognized he was different," Tompkins said. He said no decision has been made yet about what will happen to Tilikum, such as transferring him to another facility.

A retired couple from Michigan told The Associated Press that they were among some stragglers in the audience who had stayed to watch the animals and trainers.

Eldon Skaggs, 72, said Brancheau's interaction with Tilikum appeared leisurely and informal at first. But then the killer whale "pulled her under and started swimming around with her," he said.

Skaggs said an alarm sounded and staff rushed the audience out of the stadium as workers scrambled around with nets.

Skaggs said he heard that during an earlier show the killer whale was not responding to directions. Others who attended the earlier show said the creature was behaving like an ornery child.

The couple left and didn't find out until later that the trainer had died.

"We were just a little bit stunned," said Skaggs' wife, Sue Nichols, 67.

Another audience member, Victoria Biniak, told WKMG-TV the killer whale "took off really fast in the tank, and then he came back, shot up in the air, grabbed the trainer by the waist and started thrashing around, and one of her shoes flew off."

Two other witnesses told the Orlando Sentinel that the orca grabbed the woman by the upper arm and tossed her around in its mouth while swimming rapidly around the tank. Brazilian tourist Joao Lucio DeCosta Sobrinho and his girlfriend were at an underwater viewing area when they suddenly saw a killer whale with a person in its mouth.

The couple said they watched the killer whale show at the park two days earlier and came back to take pictures. But on Wednesday the creatures appeared agitated.

"It was terrible. It's very difficult to see the image," Sobrinho said.

A SeaWorld spokesman said Tilikum was one of three orcas blamed for killing a trainer in 1991 after the woman lost her balance and fell in the pool at Sealand of the Pacific near Victoria, British Columbia.

Steve Huxter, who was head of Sealand's animal care and training department then, said Wednesday he's surprised it happened again. He says Tilikum was a well-behaved, balanced animal.

Tilikum was also involved in a 1999 death, when the body of a man who had sneaked by SeaWorld security was found draped over him. The man either jumped, fell or was pulled into the frigid water and died of hypothermia, though he was also bruised and scratched by Tilikum.

Later Wednesday, SeaWorld in San Diego also suspended its killer whale show. It was not clear if the killer whale show has been suspended at SeaWorld's San Antonio location, which is closed until the weekend.

According to a profile of Brancheau in the Sentinel in 2006, she was one of SeaWorld Orlando's leading trainers. It was a trip to SeaWorld at age 9 that made her want to follow that career path. Dawn was the youngest of six children who grew up near Cedar Lake, Ind.

"I remember walking down the aisle (of Shamu Stadium) and telling my mom, 'This is what I want to do,'" she said in the article.

Brancheau worked her way into a leadership role at Shamu Stadium during her career with SeaWorld, starting at the Sea Lion & Otter Stadium before spending 10 years working with killer whales, the newspaper said.

She also addressed the dangers of the job.

"You can't put yourself in the water unless you trust them and they trust you," Brancheau said.

Brancheau's older sister, Diane Gross, said the trainer "would not want anything done to that whale."

The trainer was married and didn't have children.

"She loved the whales like her children, she loved all of them," said Gross, of Schererville, Ind. "They all had personalities, good days and bad days."

Gross said the family viewed her sister's death as an unfortunate accident, adding: "It just hasn't sunk in yet."

Steve McCulloch, founder and program manager at the Marine Mammal Research and Conservation Program at Harbor Branch/Florida Atlantic University, said the killer whale may have been playing, but it is too early to tell.

"I wouldn't jump to conclusions," he said. "These are very large powerful marine mammals. They exhibit this type of behavior in the wild."

Tompkins, the SeaWorld head trainer, said of the orca: "We have no idea what was going through his head."

Mike Wald, a spokesman for the Occupational Safety and Health Administration office in Atlanta, said his agency had dispatched an investigator from Tampa.

Wednesday's death was not the first attack on killer whale trainers at SeaWorld parks.

In November 2006, a trainer was bitten and held underwater several times by a killer whale during a show at SeaWorld's San Diego park.

The trainer, Kenneth Peters, escaped with a broken foot. The 17-foot orca that attacked him was the dominant female of SeaWorld San Diego's seven killer whales. She had attacked Peters two other times, in 1993 and 1999.

In 2004, another whale at the company's San Antonio park tried to hit one of the trainers and attempted to bite him. He also escaped.

Wednesday's attack was the second time in two months that an orca trainer was killed at a marine park. On Dec. 24, 29-year-old Alexis Martinez Hernandez fell from a killer whale and crushed his ribcage at Loro Parque on the Spanish island of Tenerife. Park officials said the killer whale, a 14-year-old named Keto, made an unusual move as the two practiced a trick in which the creature lifts the trainer and leaps into the air.

-- Associated Press

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Photo: Tilikum in a 1999 photo. Credit: Frank Rivera / Orlando Sentinel

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