ORLANDO, Fla. – A killer whale attacked and killed a trainer in front of a horrified audience Wednesday at a SeaWorld show, with at least one witness saying the animal leaped from the water, dragged her under and thrashed her around violently.
Distraught audience members were hustled out of the stadium, and the park was immediately closed.
The 40-year-old veteran trainer was one of the park's most experienced. It was not clear exactly how she died.
An audience member said a show was just starting when the 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," Victoria Biniak told WKMG-TV.
But Jim Solomons of the Orlando County Sheriff's Office, said the trainer slipped or fell into the whale's tank, which seemed to contradict Biniak's description.
Authorities provided few immediate details, but two witnesses told the Orlando Sentinel that one of the park's whales 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 whale with someone in its mouth.
The couple said they watched the whale show at the park two days earlier and came back to take pictures. But on Wednesday the whales appeared agitated before the incident occurred.
"It was terrible. It's very difficult to see the image," Sobrinho said.
The trainer was identified as Dawn Brancheau, according to a law enforcement official who spoke on condition of anonymity because he had not been cleared to officially release her name.
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 9 years old that made her want to pursue this career.
"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.
"It could be play behavior. 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.
At the Orlando SeaWorld, the body of a naked man was found draped over a 5-ton orca named Tilikum in July 1999. He was scratched and bruised.
Daniel Dukes reportedly made his way past security at SeaWorld and remained in the park after it had closed. Wearing only his underwear, Dukes either jumped, fell or was pulled into the frigid water of Tilikum's huge tank.
An autopsy ruled that he died of hypothermia in the 50-degree water. But they 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.
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