Dawn Brancheau was a trainer at Orlando's SeaWorld in Shamu Stadium. Stories differ about how Ms. Brancheau died. Was it an accident or was the Orca angry? The Whale, known as Tilly or Tilikum, has a questionable past, with another trainer found dead in 1992, and homeless man discovered dead on Tilly's back in 1999. Update 2-15-10 below - see a new video of an interview with Dawn Brancheau below.
Early stories say it was an accident. Brancheau, 40, was in a "whale holding" area, she slipped or fell into the whale tank and drowned, but this minute, FOXNews is reporting that SeaWorld has made a statement that they believe Brancheau did not fall into the tank, that the Orca grabbed her and pulled her into the water.
Onlookers (witnesses) saw something different:
But witnesses told the Orlando Sentinel that one of the park's whale grabbed the trainer by the upper arm, tossing her around in its mouth as it swam rapidly around and around in the tank.
Brazilian tourist Joao Lucio DeCosta Sobrinho, 28, and girlfriend Talita Oliveira, 20, were at an underwater viewing area when they suddenly saw a whale with someone in its mouth.
Other witnesses who were in the park for the Dine with Shamu told the Sentinel that a female trainer was petting a whale when it grabbed her and plunged back into the water. The whale reappeared on the other side of the tank with the woman.Ms Brancheau's sister, Diane Goss, said she was an experienced trainer. A FOXNews report today says that Brancheau was "rubbing Tilikum after a noontime show when the 12,000-pound whale grabbed her and pulled her in...It was not clear if she drowned or died from the thrashing.
Because of his size and the previous deaths, trainers were not supposed to get into the water with Tilikum, and only about a dozen of the park's 29 trainers worked with him. 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.
Eldon Skaggs, 72, saw Brancheau on platform massaging the whale. He said the interaction appeared leisurely and informal. Skaggs that the whale "pulled her under and started swimming around with her."
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.Another eyewitness said 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."
In 1992 Tilikum was one of three Orcas blamed for killing a trainer in British Columbia. The trainer fell lost her balance and fell into the pool. In 1999, it is believed a homeless man got into the park and into the and apparently into the whale tank. The man was found dead, lying across the back of the Tilikum.
On December 24, 2009 trainer Alexis Martinez Hernandez, on the island of Tenerife, was killed when he fell off the back of a whale. His ribcage was crushed.
Dawn Brancheau died from "multiple traumatic injuries and drowning. The 12,000 pound killer whale grabbed her ponytail and pulled her underwater. She was underwater for an extended period of time. The water was only knee-deep when the whale grabbed. Rescuers could not immediately reach her to rescue her. Tilikum was lured into another pool of water so that rescuers could get to Dawn. Because of Tilikum's past history and size, rescuers did not get in the pool with him.
The whale got Ms. Brancheau by her waist and shook her violently.