ORLANDO - An employee at SeaWorld Orlando dies after being attacked by a killer whale. A witness told WKMG-TV that the trainer had just finished explaining to the audience the show they were about to see when the whale suddenly came up from the water, grabbed the trainer around the waist and "thrashed her all around" to the point the trainer's shoe fell off.
A SeaWorld killer whale seized a trainer in its jaws Wednesday 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. It was not clear if she drowned or died from the thrashing.
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A former contractor with SeaWorld told the Orlando Sentinel that the whale, Tillikum, is typically kept isolated from SeaWorld's other killer whales and that trainers were not allowed to get in the water with him because of his violent history.
There were conflicting accounts of the attack. The sheriff's office said Brancheau slipped or fell into the whale's tank, but at least one witness said the animal leaped from the water and dragged the woman in.
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.
Spectator Eldon Skaggs 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 did not find out until later that the trainer had died.
"We were just a little bit stunned," said Skaggs' wife, Sue Nichols.
Another audience member, Victoria Biniak, told WKMG-TV 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."
‘It was terrible’
Two other witnesses told the Sentinel that the whale 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 a person 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.
"It was terrible. It's very difficult to see the image," Sobrinho said.
A SeaWorld spokesman said Tilikum was one of three orcas blamed for killing trainer Keltie Byrne in 1991 after the woman lost her balance and fell in the pool at Sealand of the Pacific in Victoria, British Columbia.
The orcas "weren't trying to kill Byrne, but Tillikum and his orca companions didn't know that humans can't hold their breath as long as whales," Humane Society scientist Naomi Rose said in a report on the group's Web site.
Tillikum was later shipped to SeaWorld Orlando, the Humane Society noted, and in 1999, "a man who had apparently stayed in the park after closing hours jumped into Tillikum's tank ... He was found dead the next morning, naked and draped across the whale. The man's swim trunks were found in the water, and his body was scraped up, a sign that Tillikum had dragged him around the bottom and sides of the tank."
An autopsy ruled that the man died of hypothermia in the 50-degree water. But officials also said it appeared Tillikum bit the man and tore off his swimming trunks, likely believing he was a toy to play with.
Rose, an orca biologist, told msnbc.com that SeaWorld had since "tried to keep trainers out of the water" with Tillikum "but the hazard is always there."
Some two dozen orcas are kept in captivity in the U.S., most at SeaWorld facilities, Rose said. Worldwide the number is 47.
"In the developing world, the South Pacific and Asia, it's the hot fad," she said of keeping marine mammals in captivity.
Meanwhile, at the Orlando stadium on Wednesday, a body covered with a black shroud could be seen lying on the concrete near the water as the animals swam just a few feet away.
Later Wednesday, SeaWorld in San Diego also suspended its killer whale show. It was 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 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.
The dangers of the job
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.
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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.
Previous orca incidents at SeaWorld
"There have been numerous incidents by other killer whales," Rose said. "These animals are big, they are social, they are moody, and they can hurt you."
Last December, a killer whale drowned a trainer at a Spanish zoo.
Several attacks on trainers have been at SeaWorld parks.
In November 2006, trainer Kenneth Peters was bitten and held underwater several times by a 7,000-pound killer whale during a show at SeaWorld's San Diego park. He escaped with a broken foot. The 17-foot-long orca who 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 killer whale at the company's San Antonio park tried to hit one of the trainers and attempted to bite him. He also escaped.
Killer whales, or orcas, are not actually whales but the largest member of the dolphin family. The name killer whale comes from them being observed as sometimes killing whales for food.
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