Former trainer at Sea World said mistake triggered killer whale attack

Published February 26, 2010 6:18PM (EST)

The former boss of a trainer drowned by a killer whale in Orlando says he believes the attack was triggered by the trainer's mistake.

Thad Lacinak (lah-CIN'-ick), a former head trainer at SeaWorld, told ABC's "Good Morning America" on Friday that he has seen video of the moments preceding the fatal attack Wednesday. He said he believes trainer Dawn Brancheau (bran-CHOH') made a mistake by letting her ponytail drift in the water in front of the killer whale.

Lacinak says the killer whale grabbed the ponytail in his mouth and pulled her in the water.

Lacinak says Brancheau, if she were alive, would acknowledge it was her mistake.

Lacinak says Brancheau was lying on an underwater shelf called a slideout. The killer whale named Tilikum was next to the shelf in the deeper water of a pool.

THIS IS A BREAKING NEWS UPDATE. Check back soon for further information. AP's earlier story is below.

ORLANDO, Fla. (AP) -- SeaWorld's signature show -- about a child who grows up to swim with the mighty orcas -- was in many ways the story of the trainer drowned this week by one of the park's killer whales.

Like the child portrayed in "Believe" at Shamu Stadium, Dawn Brancheau fell in love with the majestic mammals at a young age and went on to become a trainer at the world's most famous marine parks. Friends, relatives and colleagues recall her as a bright girl who dedicated herself to the animals she considered her own children.

"Her personality and disposition was just a magnet," said Robin Friday, a former curator of animal training at SeaWorld who hired Brancheau in 1994. "I can never think of a negative experience or time that I personally had or any employee had."

Brancheau, 40, was rubbing Tilikum after another noontime show, "Dine With Shamu," when the 22-foot, 12,000-pound creature grabbed her ponytail in its jaws and pulled her off a poolside platform. Tilikum was also one of three orcas blamed for killing a trainer in 1991 after the woman lost her balance and fell into a pool at a Sealand theme park near Victoria, British Columbia.

The killer whale shows have been suspended at SeaWorld's three parks in Orlando, San Antonio and San Diego. Chuck Tompkins, chief of animal training at SeaWorld parks, said Thursday that the shows won't resume until trainers understand what happened to Brancheau. He also said trainers will review safety procedures and change them as needed.

Brancheau's sister, Diane Gross, said the family considers her death an unfortunate accident and that the trainer wouldn't want anything done to the whale. Gross said her sister considered the whales as if they were her children.

"It was her dream job since she was 9 years old," Gross said of Brancheau's desire to work at SeaWorld.

The youngest of six children from Cedar Lake, Ind., Brancheau had talked about training whales ever since a family trip to the park when she was that age. To make the dream come true, she took a job at a park in New Jersey after college, working with dolphins and sea lions, before she was hired by the better-known SeaWorld.

"It was very exciting," Gross said of her family's reaction to the SeaWorld job. "We were very proud of her."

But the job wasn't without risks, which Brancheau acknowledged in a profile in the Orlando Sentinel in 2006.

"You can't put yourself in the water unless you trust them and they trust you," she said at the time.

At Andrean High School in Merrillville, Ind., Brancheau was the school's homecoming and prom queen, president of the student council and a cheerleader. She ran track and played golf and tennis. Brancheau headed south for college, and graduated from the University of South Carolina in 1991 with a bachelor's degree in psychology.

Dave Pishkur, her high school golf coach, said he "doesn't think Dawn ever did not have a smile on her face -- a very bubbly effervescent person. Very, very popular, very much a people person."

When she came back for her high school class's 20-year reunion in 2007 with her husband, Pishkur said he asked her when she would start a family.

"She said right now the whales were her family," he said. "Some students just stick with you forever ... and Dawn was one of those. We are all very remorseful."

Kim Skowronski Biesen, a classmate from Crown Point, Ind., said Brancheau "was something to be proud of" and probably one of the best legacies of her graduating class.

"I know when people would go to Florida to see her, she would welcome them with open arms," Biesen said.

Brancheau was killed in front of about 20 visitors who had stuck around after the noontime show. They watched in horror as Tilikum charged through the pool with her in his jaws.

Witnesses said the whale played with Brancheau like a toy. Authorities said that trainers trying to help her could not get into the water because Tilikum was so aggressive. They had to coax him into a smaller pool and raise him out of the water on a platform before they could free her.

She likely died from multiple traumatic injuries and drowning, the Orange County medical examiner's office said Thursday.

The park says Tilikum will not be destroyed, transferred or released and that he is an important member of the eight-whale pod.

Because of Tilikum's size and history of aggressive behavior, visitors were not allowed to get close to the whale, and trainers were not permitted to climb into the water with the animal. They were only allowed to work with him from a partially submerged deck.

In 1999, the body of a naked man was found draped over Tilikum at SeaWorld in Orlando. Officials said the man had stayed in the park after closing and apparently fell into the whale tank. An autopsy found he died of hypothermia. Officials also said it appeared Tilikum bit the man.

Friday, the former curator, said Tilikum was assigned to only the most senior staff. Tompkins said that Brancheau was one of the most experienced trainers with the animal.

Friday said Brancheau brought joy to the job.

"She loved the animals. She loved the people she worked with. She loved her job," Friday said.


Associated Press writers Lisa Orkin Emmanuel reported from Miami; Brian Skoloff reported from Orlando; Mitch Stacy from Tampa, Fla.; Noaki Schwartz from Los Angeles; Mitch Weiss from Charlotte, N.C.; and Kelli Kennedy from Fort Lauderdale, Fla. Bob Springer from APTN also reported from Orlando.

By Associated Press

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