Updated:ORLANDO, Fla.,None - A killer whale attacked and killed a 40-year-old trainer in front of a horrified audience at a SeaWorld show Wednesday, with witnesses saying the animal involved in two previous deaths dragged the trainer under and thrashed her around violently.
"It is with great sadness that I report that one of our most experienced animal trainers drowned in an incident with one of our killer whales this afternoon. We've initiated an investigation to determine, to the extent possible, what occurred. There are no other details to report at this time," SeaWorld GM Dan Brown said Wednesday afternoon.
Veteran trainer Dawn Brancheau, 40, was one of the park's most experienced. It wasn't clear if she drowned or died from the thrashing.
"We had a female trainer back in the whale holding area, she apparently slipped or fell into the tank and was fatally injured by one of the whales," said Jim Solomons, Orange County Sheriff's Office.
WFTV talked to Chuck Tompkins, who is the corporate zoologist for SeaWorld, about the tragic death of Dawn Brancheau (full interview) . Contrary to what the sheriff's office reported at the press conference earlier Wednesday, Tompkins said she was pulled in.
"She was pulled in and she drowned," he said.
"Did she fall in?" WFTV reporter Mark Boyle asked.
"No, she was pulled in," Tompkins replied. "At the end of it, she was apparently rubbing the animal down and apparently the whale pulled her in."
Distraught audience members were hustled out of the stadium, and the park was immediately closed.
"All of the sudden, out of nowhere, two of the bigger whales just kind of flipped out, going as fast as they could in the water," guest David Dalton told Eyewitness News. "They cut off the show, like, quickly."
Dawn Brancheau SeaWorld Trainer 022410 Dawn Brancheau Dawn Brancheau "Brancheau was pronounced dead at the park after being recovered from the pool. Orange County Sheriff's Office Homicide Investigators continue to investigate the death of the trainer who was reported to have 16 years of experience working with killer whales," the Orange County Sheriff's Office wrote in an emailed release.
SeaWorld spokesman Fred Jacobs confirmed the whale was Tilikum, one of three orcas blamed for killing a trainer who lost her balance and fell in the pool with them in 1991 at Sealand of the Pacific in Victoria, British Columbia.
A former employee of the Canadian aquarium, Steve Huxter, says he's surprised it happened again.
Huxter says he's surprised to hear Tilikum is blamed for killing another trainer Wednesday at SeaWorld in Orlando. He says Tilikum was a well-behaved, balanced animal.
He says there's no chance in the world Tilikum will be put down.
Tilikum was also involved in a 1999 death, when the body of a man who had sneaked by Orlando 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.
A retired couple from Michigan told The Associated Press that Wednesday's killing happened as a noontime show was winding down, with some in the audience staying to watch the animals and trainers.
Eldon Skaggs, 72, said Brancheau was on a platform with the whale and was massaging it. He said the interaction appeared leisurely and informal.
Then, Skaggs said, the whale "pulled her under and started swimming around with her."
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 whale was not responding to directions. Others who attended the earlier show said the whale 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.
Wednesday afternoon, internationally-known animal rights organization PETA released this statement: "The death of the SeaWorld trainer following the attack by Telly the whale is a tragedy that didn't have to happen. For years, PETA has been calling on SeaWorld to stop confining oceangoing mammals to an area that to them is like the size of a bathtub, and we have also been asking the park to stop forcing the animals to perform silly tricks over and over again. It's not surprising when these huge, smart animals lash out."
Authorities provided few immediate details. SeaWorld in San Diego also suspended its killer whale show after Brancheau's death. It is 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 Orlando Sentinel in 2006, she was one of SeaWorld Orlando's leading trainers. It was apparently a trip to SeaWorld at age 9 that made her want to follow that career path.
"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 12-year career with SeaWorld, starting at the Sea Lion & Otter Stadium before spending the past 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.
Steve McCulloch, founder and program manager at the Marine Mammal Research and Conservation Program at Harbor Branch/Florida Atlantic University, said the 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.
"Nobody cares more about the animal than the trainer. It's just hard to fathom that this has happened."
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 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.
In December, a whale drowned a trainer at a Spanish zoo.
Then there was the July 1999 incident at the Orlando SeaWorld, when the body of a naked man was found draped over Tilikum.
Daniel Dukes reportedly made his way past security and remained in the park after it had closed. Wearing only his underwear, he ended up in the frigid water of Tilikum's huge tank.
An autopsy ruled that he died of hypothermia in the 50-degree water. But officials also said it appeared Tilikum bit the man and tore off his swimming trunks, likely believing he was a toy to play with.
Dukes' parents filed a lawsuit against the park later that year but ended up withdrawing it.
According to Wikipedia (see full listing), "Tillikum measures 22 feet 6 inches long and weighs in at 12,300 pounds (as of 2007). His pectoral fins are six and one half feet long, his massive flukes curl under, and his 6-foot-tall dorsal fin is flopped completely to his left side, and weighs close to 200 pounds. He is the largest Orca in captivity and also the most successful sire in captivity, with 13 offspring, 10 of which are still alive."
WFTV asked corporate zoologist, Chuck Tompkins, if the whale will be put down due to the incident.
To which he replied, "No, absolutely not, absolutely not. He's a large animal, he's a killer whale and we understand the risks of working with these large animals."
Chuck Tompkins said the Shamu show in Orlando will not go on Thursday or until further notice.