Whale kills trainer as horrified spectators watch

An orca that had been involved in two previous deaths attacked and killed a trainer at Orlando SeaWorld on Wednesday.
The Associated Press
Wednesday, February 24, 2010; 11:51 PM

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 part of the park was closed.

Trainer Dawn Brancheau, 40, 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. Park officials say the veteran trainer drowned.

Audience member Eldon Skaggs 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 told The Associated Press.

Skaggs, 72, 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.

He left with his wife and didn't find out until later that the trainer had died. The retired couple from Michigan had been among some stragglers in the audience who had stayed to watch the animals and trainers when the accident occurred.

"We were just a little bit stunned," said Skaggs' wife, Sue Nichols, 67.

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."

Two other witnesses told the Orlando 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.

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