ORLANDO — A SeaWorld killer whale seized a trainer in its jaws Wednesday 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 the park was closed.
Trainer Dawn Brancheau, 40, was one of the park's most experienced. It was not clear if she drowned or died from the thrashing.
A former contractor with SeaWorld told the Orlando Sentinel that the whale, Tilikum, is typically kept isolated from SeaWorld's other killer whales and that trainers were not allowed to get in the water with him because of his violent history.
There were conflicting accounts of the attack. The sheriff's office said Brancheau slipped or fell into the whale's tank, but at least one witness said the animal leaped from the water and dragged the woman in.
A retired couple from Michigan told The Associated Press that Wednesday's killing happened as a noontime show was winding down, with some in the audience staying to watch the animals and trainers.
Spectator Eldon Skaggs said Brancheau was on a platform with the whale and was massaging it. He said the interaction appeared leisurely and informal.
Then, Skaggs said, the whale "pulled her under and started swimming around with her."
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. Others who attended the earlier show said the whale was behaving like an ornery child.
The couple left and did not find out until later that the trainer had died.
"We were just a little bit stunned," said Skaggs' wife, Sue Nichols.
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 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.
A SeaWorld spokesman said 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.
Steve Huxter, who was head of Sealand's animal care and training department then, said Wednesday he's surprised it happened again. He says Tilikum was a well-behaved, balanced animal.
Tilikum 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 Tilikum.
At the stadium, a black shroud could be seen covering what appeared to be a body lying on the concrete near the water as the animals swam just a few feet away.
Later Wednesday, SeaWorld in San Diego also suspended its killer whale show. It was not clear if the killer whale show has been suspended at SeaWorld's San Antonio location, which is closed until the weekend.
According to a profile of Brancheau in the Sentinel in 2006, she was one of SeaWorld Orlando's leading trainers. It was apparently a trip to SeaWorld at age 9 that made her want to follow that career path.
"I remember walking down the aisle (of Shamu Stadium) and telling my mom, 'This is what I want to do,'" she said in the article.
Brancheau worked her way into a leadership role at Shamu Stadium during her career with SeaWorld, starting at the Sea Lion & Otter Stadium before spending 10 years working with killer whales, the newspaper said.
She also addressed the dangers of the job.
"You can't put yourself in the water unless you trust them and they trust you," Brancheau said.
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.
"Nobody cares more about the animal than the trainer. It's just hard to fathom that this has happened."
Mike Wald, a spokesman for the Occupational Safety and Health Administration office in Atlanta, said his agency had dispatched an investigator from Tampa.
Wednesday's death was not the first attack on whale trainers at SeaWorld parks.
In November 2006, a trainer was bitten and held underwater several times by a killer whale during a show at SeaWorld's San Diego park.
The trainer, Kenneth Peters, escaped with a broken foot. The 17-foot orca that attacked him was the dominant female of SeaWorld San Diego's seven killer whales. She had attacked Peters two other times, in 1993 and 1999.
In 2004, another whale at the company's San Antonio park tried to hit one of the trainers and attempted to bite him. He also escaped.
Wednesday's attack was the second time in two months that an orca trainer was killed at a marine park. On Dec. 24, 29-year-old Alexis Martinez Hernandez fell from a whale and crushed his ribcage at Loro Parque on the Spanish island of Tenerife. Park officials said the whale, a 14-year-old named Keto, made an unusual move as the two practiced a trick in which the whale lifts the trainer and leaps into the air.
Associated Press writers Lisa Orkin Emmanuel, Laura Wides-Munoz and David Fischer in Miami and Jeremy Hainsworth in Vancouver, British Columbia, contributed to this report.