A killer whale killed a SeaWorld Orlando trainer who slipped or fell in its tank Wednesday, drowning her in front of a horrified audience.
Dawn Brancheau, 40, was one of the Orlando’s park’s most experienced trainers, according to general manager Dan Brown.
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.
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," another audience member, Victoria Biniak, told WKMG-TV.
But Jim Solomons of the Orlando County Sheriff's Office said Brancheau slipped or fell into the whale's tank, which seemed to contradict Biniak's description.
The park is investigating, and Mike Wald, a spokesman for the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration office in Atlanta, said his agency has dispatched an investigator from Tampa.
A SeaWorld spokesman says a killer whale that attacked and killed a trainer in Orlando is the same one involved in two other deaths, including that of a Canada trainer.
There have been several previous attacks on whale trainers at SeaWorld parks.
In Nov. 2006, trainer Kenneth Peters, 39, was bitten and held underwater several times by a 7,000-pound killer whale during a show at SeaWorld's San Diego park. The 28-year old female named Kasatka bit Peters' feet and took him to the bottom of the pool for about a minute. Peters suffered a broken foot and puncture wounds in the attack.
The 17-foot-long orca had attacked Peters two other times, in 1993 and 1999.
After the 2006 incident, Cal OSHA investigated and initially recommended the park test spare air systems or portable breathing apparatus for the trainers.The investigators based in San Diego also told SeaWorld that it should prepare to kill a killer whale to save the life of a trainer in the future. The day after that report was issued though, Cal OSHA retracted it and agreed with SeaWorld’s opinion that state investigators aren’t trained on marine mammal behavior.
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.
SeaWorld San Diego canceled its whale shows Wednesday after news of the trainer's death. "We are very saddened by the loss to our family," said Dave Koontz, a SeaWorld San Diego spokesperson.
SeaWorld spokesman Fred Jacobs says the whale that killed Brancheau Wednesday is Tilikum.
Tilikum was one of three whales blamed for killing a trainer in 1991 at Sealand of the Pacific in Victoria, British Columbia.
A man's body was also found draped over Tilikum at Orlando SeaWorld in July 1999.
Daniel Dukes reportedly made his way past security at SeaWorld and either jumped, fell or was pulled into the frigid water of Tilikum's huge tank.
An autopsy ruled that he died of hypothermia, but authorities said it appeared Tilikum bit the man and tore off his swimming trunks.