A SeaWorld killer whale seized a trainer 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 stadium immediately, and the park was closed on Wednesday.
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.