A SEAWORLD killer whale snatched a trainer from a poolside platform 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 Florida stadium immediately, and the park was closed.
Dawn Brancheau, 40, was one of the park’s most experienced trainers.
Her sister said Brancheau wouldn’t want anything done to the whale because she loved the animals like children.
Brancheau was rubbing Tillikum 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. 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 Tillikum, and only about a dozen of the park’s 29 trainers worked with him. Ms Brancheau had more experience with the 30-year-old whale than most.
“We recognised he was different,” Mr Tompkins said. He said no decision has been made yet about what will happen to Tillikum, such as transferring him to another facility.
A retired couple were among some stragglers in the audience who had stayed to watch the animals and trainers.
Eldon Skaggs, 72, 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 said.
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.
A SeaWorld spokesman said Tillikum 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.
Tillikum was also involved in a 1999 death, when the body of a man who had sneaked by SeaWorld security was found draped over him. The man either jumped, fell or was pulled into the frigid water and died of hypothermia, though he was also bruised and scratched by Tillikum.
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