Probe: Killer whale pulled trainer in by ponytail

ORLANDO — Orange County Sheriff’s Office investigators said SeaWorld Orlando trainer Dawn Brancheau died Wednesday from “multiple traumatic injuries and drowning” after a killer whale pulled her underwater by her long ponytail near the theme park’s Shamu Stadium.

Investigators released a statement Thursday shortly after an official at SeaWorld Orlando said the killer whale Tilikum is still being evaluated but that the theme park will keep the 12,000-pound dominant male animal.

Brancheau, 40, was “interacting” with the killer whale in knee-deep water “when the animal grabbed her by the hair, said to be in a long ponytail, and pulled her underwater,” the Orange County Sheriff’s Office said. “Rescuers were not able to immediately jump in and render assistance” to Brancheau because of Tilikum’s “aggressive nature.”

Tilikum pulled Brancheau into the orca’s tank about 2 p.m. Wednesday. The attack — the third human death linked to the killer whale since 1991 — made international news. Investigators said SeaWorld staffers recovered her after Tilikum “was coaxed into a smaller pool and lifted out of the water by a large scale/platform that lay on the bottom of the smaller tank,” the statement said.

“While this incident remains the subject of an ongoing death investigation there are no signs of foul play. All evidence and witness statements indicate that the death was a tragic accident,” the statement added.

Investigators said rescue workers originally thought Brancheau had “slipped or fell into the orca’s pool but, after witness statements were taken and reviewed by homicide investigators, it became apparent that the whale had, in fact, pulled Brancheau into the pool and was the cause of her fatal injuries,” the statement said. An autopsy by the Orange-Osceola Medical Examiner’s Office concluded Brancheau, a veteran trainer at the park, died of traumatic injuries. Details of her injuries were not released.

The autopsy won’t be final until toxicology tests are completed. It will take several weeks to get those results, according to a spokeswoman for the Medical Examiner’s office.

Chuck Tompkins, the corporate curator in charge of animal behavior for SeaWorld Parks & Entertainment, said that he expects SeaWorld to be taking care of Tilkikum for a long time.

He said doesn’t think the animal could survive in the wild.

“I think it’s unfair to do that to an animal,” he said, adding that SeaWorld employees also continue to mourn Brancheau, their longtime coworker and friend.

“This has been extremely difficult for us. ... Every animal loved working with Dawn,” Tompkins said.

As tourists entered the park on Thursday morning, a sign informed guests that The Shamu Show would remain closed. SeaWorld also made an announcement over its public-address system apologizing for the closure. Nothing was said about the death. A SeaWorld spokesman said The Shamu Show will not reopen Friday.

“It’s scary,” SeaWorld Orlando visitor April D’Agostino said. “But they know what’s at risk when they get in the tank with those whales.”

D’Agostino heard the news about the trainer’s death on television, as did the Malkins from Asheville, N.C.

“I’m sensing that the mood today is a little more somber,” Heidi Malkin said while visiting the park.

Although Malkin and her husband, Dave, heard about Wednesday’s accident on television, it didn’t prevent them from visiting SeaWorld Orlando.

“We wondered how the park would be different today,” Dave Malkin added.

About six television news trucks, most representing local stations, were outside the park before its 9 a.m. opening, but there was otherwise little evidence that anything at the park had changed.

Tourist Dennis Diego, 30, of Sao Paolo, Brazil, said he wasn’t immediately aware about what happened, even though he was at the park Wednesday and saw helicopters flying overhead.

He found out about the attack after he and his wife, Vanessa, 29, returned to their hotel.

The Diegos had seen the same show where the accident happened earlier in the day, but it had not been the best performance.

“Not everything went right,” said Dennis Diego. “The girl said the whales were not in the mood for it.”