By David Gardner
SeaWorld trainer Dawn Brancheau, pictured above and below with one of her animals, was dragged to her death by a killer whale at the adventure park
A woman trainer was dragged underwater and drowned by a six-ton 'serial' killer whale in front of horrified spectators at SeaWorld in Florida yesterday.
Dawn Brancheau, 40, was grabbed by the waist and shaken violently by the rogue whale at the Orlando theme park, which attracts tens of thousands of British visitors each year.
The whale, Tillikum, was still being allowed to perform at the park up until yesterday's tragedy despite being responsible for the deaths of two other people in attacks.
The attack happened at lunchtime yesterday when about 50 tourists stayed behind after the 'Believe' show to watch trainers feed the orcas.
There were conflicting reports over how Mrs Brancheau, who had worked for 14 years with killer whales as was one of SeaWorld's most experienced trainers, was killed.
Police said she 'apparently slipped or fell' into the whales' tank, but eye-witnesses described a much more horrific scene.
Park guest Victoria Biniak said she was watching as the trainers talked about the show to a crowd of people when one of them was suddenly swept away in the whale's mouth.
The whale 'took off really fast in the tank and then he came back around to the glass, shot up in the air, grabbed the trainer by the waist and started shaking her violently, and one of her shoes flew off,' she said.
Dawn Brancheau's body lies covered under a canopy, circled below, as an unidentified orca, possibly her killer Tillikum, swims segregated in a pool beside her at SeaWorld
She said Mrs Brancheau was talking about Tillikum, one of the stars of the Shamu show.
'We walked down and there was a lot of people there. There was a trainer standing by the window talking about the whale. People were asking questions like how much does he weigh and things like that,' she said.
'Then the whale floated upside down and the trainer said he wanted a belly rub. He really likes that. Then Tillikum just took off like a bat out of you know where.'
Gary Biniak said Tillikum, a male orca weighing over 12,000lbs, 'literally charged one of the trainers who was on the side of the pool training and feeding the whales'.
Dawn Brancheau was filmed feeding the killer whales just moments before she was attacked and killed
A killer whale approaches Dawn Brancheau, seconds later she was dragged underneath the water
He said: 'The whale pulled the trainer into the water and was thrashing around. He dragged her underneath the water and wouldn't let her come up. It was terrible.
'Generally, they don't allow any of the trainers to swim with this particular whale because he is so large and has a different temperament.'
'This particular trainer didn't jump into the water, she was taken forcibly,' he added.
Dan Brown, the park's manager, fought back tears as he said the trainer, who had been inspired by a trip to SeaWorld when she was nine years old, 'drowned in an incident with one of our killer whales'.
He wouldn't comment on what is likely to happen to the killer whale.
Tillikum, the largest killer whale in captivity, had a history of attacks on humans before this latest tragic incident
Dawn Brancheau swimming with a killer whale called Nalani in March 2009
Mrs Brancheau's older sister, Diane Gross, said the trainer - who was married but did not have any children - would not want anything to happen to the killer whale because she loved the animals 'like children'.
She said: 'She loved the whales like her children, she loved all of them. They all had personalities, good days and bad days.'
She added that the family was viewing Mrs Brancheau's death as an unfortunate action.
In an interview, Mrs Brancheau acknowledged the risks of the job, saying: 'You can't put yourself in the water unless you trust them and they trust you.'
'I remember walking down the aisle [of Shamu Stadium] and telling my mom, "this is what I want to do",' she told the Orlando Sentinel in 2006.
An Orlando police spokesman claimed last night that Mrs Brancheau tumbled accidentally into the whale holding tank and died.
'There is no sense of foul play right now. This appears to be an accident,' he said.
Dan Brown, general manager of SeaWorld Adventure Park, centre, walks with Kelly Flaherty Clark, left, curator of animal training at SeaWorld, before holding a news conference yesterday after the death of Dawn Brancheau
It is not the first time Tillikum has been involved in an attack. Nicknamed 'Tilly', he was blamed for the drowning of one of his trainers in 1991 when he was at Sealand in British Columbia.
Sold to SeaWorld as a stud in 1992, the whale was also involved in an incident when a homeless man's dead body was found across his back in 1999.
The man is thought to have drowned in the stadium's icy water, but investigators said it appeared that the whale had bitten him and tore off his swimming trunks thinking he was a play toy.
Because of his size and the previous deaths, trainers were not supposed to get into the water with Tilikum, and only 12 of the park's 29 trainers worked with him.
Mrs Brancheau had more experience with the 30-year-old whale than most, and was one of the park's most experienced trainers overall.
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.'
'Animal lover': Dawn Brancheau, who was inspired to become an animal trainer at SeaWorld after a visit when she was just nine, poses with her pet dog
Wild killer whales are not generally seen as a threat to humans, however captive killer whales have been known to attack their handlers at theme parks.
Since the 1970s, killer whales have attacked just two dozen people worldwide.
But critics claim the animals can become aggressive when kept captive due to higher levels of stress and unnatural living conditions.
Officials at PETA called on the park 'to stop confining ocean-going mammals to an area that to them is like the size of a bathtub'
A spokesman said: 'It's not surprising when these huge, smart animals lash out.'
In November 2006, a 7,000lb killer whale dragged its handler Ken Peters underwater twice at the SeaWorld theme park in Florida during a routine trick.
After the attack, the whale, Katsatka, circled her tank as Ken Peters was treated by paramedics and whisked away on a stretcher. He was not seriously injured in the attack.
One onlooker said at the time: 'We realised she had the trainer by the foot and she took him under and submerged for a minute.'
The same killer whale also tried to drown Mr Peters during a 1999 show, again grabbing him by the foot and dragging him in circles.
Jim Atchison, President and Chief Executive Officer, SeaWorld Parks & Entertainment, said: 'It is with great sadness that I report that one of our most experienced animal
trainers drowned in an incident with one of our killer whales at our SeaWorld Orlando park.
'We have initiated an investigation to determine, to the extent possible, what occurred. There are no other details to share at this point, but we will make our findings known in due course.
'I must emphasize that this is an extraordinarily difficult time for the SeaWorld parks, and our team members. Nothing is more important than the safety of our employees, guests and the
animals entrusted to our care.
'All of our standard operating procedures will come under review as part of the investigation. We extend our deepest sympathies to the family and friends of the trainer
and will do everything possible to assist them in this difficult time.
'We appreciate everyone’s understanding and will share more information as it becomes known and available.'
'SeaWorld Orlando and SeaWorld San Diego are open today as scheduled (SeaWorld San Antonio is not yet open for the season). But Believe shows and Dine with Shamu experiences at all SeaWorld locations have been suspended for the time being. We will update you on this as soon as we have more information.'