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Trainer was nose-to-nose with orca

A final sheriff's report says a SeaWorld Orlando trainer was lying on her stomach, nose-to-nose with a killer whale when her long hair floated on the water into the animal's mouth and she was dragged to her death.
/ Source: The Associated Press

A SeaWorld Orlando trainer managed to free herself for a short time and tried to swim to the surface after she was dragged underwater by a killer whale, but the animal thwarted her attempts by striking her at least twice, according to a final death report released Wednesday.

Dawn Brancheau, 40, had been lying on her stomach on a cement slab in three inches of water, nose-to-nose with the killer whale, Tilikum, when her long hair floated into the orca's mouth and he dragged her down.

Lynne Schaber, a SeaWorld employee, told detectives that when she saw Brancheau underwater with the whale, she knew the trainer was in trouble since the Tilikum "is a possessive animal."

"He normally keeps things that he has and will not release them," the report said.

Another SeaWorld trainer, Jan Topoleski, told detectives that he sounded an alarm when he noticed Brancheau struggling to free her hair from the killer whale's mouth. When he turned back toward Brancheau, she had disappeared underwater.

She was dragged to her death at the end of a Feb. 24 Dine with Shamu show, according to the report from Orange County Sheriff's Office homicide detectives.

Topoleski told detectives that Brancheau did nothing to agitate Tilikum.

Ruled an accident
SeaWorld workers used nets to try to corral Tilikum and free Brancheau less than three minutes after the trainer was dragged under. But it took at least a half-hour, moving from pool to pool in the orca complex, before they could recover her body.

SeaWorld worker Chahine Kish said Tilikum appeared to grow more frantic as other workers used nets and threw food to distract him from Brancheau.

Another employee said that once Tilikum was captured and raised out of the water on a platform, Brancheau's body was freed. But workers had to capture the whale again when they realized he still had Brancheau's arm.

The medical examiner said Brancheau died from drowning and traumatic injuries. The death was ruled an accident.

It marked the third time Tilikum had been involved in a human death. Tilikum was one of three orcas blamed for killing a trainer in 1991 after the woman lost her balance and fell in the pool at Sealand of the Pacific near Victoria, British Columbia. Tilikum also was also involved in a 1999 death, when the body of a man who had sneaked by SeaWorld Orlando security was found draped over him.

Sea World trainers were forbidden from getting in the water with Tilikum because of the previous deaths.