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Newly released witness statements offer more details on SeaWorld trainer's orca death

March 2, 2010 |  4:35 pm


A killer whale that dragged a trainer to her death eluded SeaWorld workers' frenzied efforts to corral him with plastic nets while he swam from pool to pool, according to witness statements released Monday.

After the massive orca was trapped last week, he refused to unclench his teeth and let go of Dawn Brancheau, according to the investigative reports released by the Orange County, Fla., Sheriff's Office. His jaws were eventually pried open.

The orca "would not let us have her," another trainer, Jodie Ann Tintle, told investigators.

Investigators have said the 40-year-old trainer died from multiple traumatic injuries and drowning.

In the new investigative reports, Brancheau's co-workers describe the swiftness of the attack and the furious response that came after alarms sounded around the pool. Employees who were at other pools, behind computers or emptying coolers of fish rushed to the scene.

The reports released Monday include the first extensive accounts from employees who witnessed the attack at the park in Orlando.

Jan Topoleski, whose job is to monitor trainers' safety during shows, told investigators he saw Brancheau lying on the deck face to face with the 22-foot-long, 12,000-pound orca and communicating with him right before the attack. He said the orca, named Tilikum, bit Brancheau's hair and pulled her into the pool in  about two seconds. Topoleski sounded an alarm and grabbed safety equipment.

Susanne De Wit, a 33-year-old tourist from the Netherlands, told investigators her group had just walked to a window for a photo when she saw the attack. The attack occurred in front of about 20 visitors who had stayed after a noontime show.

"Suddenly I saw [the orca] grabbing the trainer ... and pulling her down in the water," she said. "It was scary. He was very wild, with the trainer still in the [orca's] mouth, the [orca's] tail was very wild in the water."

Tanner Grogan, who scrambled to help other employees unfurl nets to corral Tilikum, said the killer whale at one point let go for several seconds but snatched Brancheau again by the foot before anyone could react. The weighted plastic nets, similar to temporary fencing used at construction sites, were unrolled and dropped in the water to help direct the whale to a pool with a hydraulic lift.

It's not clear how long it took workers to trap the orca in that pool and lift him from the water. One witness said it seemed like 10 minutes. Another said it could have been as long as 30 minutes.

Even after the orca was lifted out of the water, Brancheau still could not be freed until his jaws were pried open. The trainer was pronounced dead by paramedics on the deck by the pool.

"Tilly was not giving up Dawn," said Robin Ann Morland, another SeaWorld worker.

-- Associated Press

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Photo: The sign at the entrance to SeaWorld Orlando in a Feb. 24 photo. Credit: Matt Stroshane / Getty Images

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