ORLANDO, Fla. – A SeaWorld killer whale snatched a trainer from a poolside platform Wednesday in its jaws 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.
Brancheau was rubbing Tilikum after a noontime show when the 12,000-pound whale grabbed her and pulled her in, 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, only about a dozen of the park’s 29 trainers worked with Tilikum. Brancheau had more experience with the 30-year-old 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 transfering 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 the whale appeared leisurely and informal at first. But then the 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.
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.
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.
According to a profile of Brancheau in the Orlando 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.
The trainer was married and didn’t have children.