SeaWorld colleagues describe their desperate efforts to rescue Dawn Brancheau

By Tim Nudd
March 02, 2010 02:00 PM
Credit: Dave Penman/Rex USA

New eyewitness accounts of last week’s killer-whale attack at Orlando’s SeaWorld paint a frantic picture of efforts to rescue trainer Dawn Brancheau – with one trainer saying it took 25 to 30 minutes to free her from the whale’s mouth.

The statements, released Monday by the sheriff’s office in Orange County, Fla., describe a lightning-quick attack followed by a frenzied but lengthy recovery effort, reports the Associated Press.

“She was laying down on our concrete walk area face-to-face performing a relationship session with the whale,” one employee said. “He bit down on a piece of her hair. Within a span of two seconds, she was pulled into the pool unable to get her hair released from his mouth.”
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As an alarm sounded, the whale – named Tilikum, and often referred to as “Tili” or “Tilly” in the statements – became agitated, repeatedly surfaced and dove with Brancheau’s body in his mouth and would not let go.

Witness Susanne De Wit, who was visiting from the Netherlands, said she saw the attack from a window looking into the tank underwater. “Suddenly I saw [the whale] grabbing the trainer … and pulling her down in the water,” she said. “It was scary. He was very wild, with the trainer still in the whale’s mouth, the whale’s tail was very wild in the water.”

Dozens of rescuers rushed to the scene but had trouble deploying nets that would keep the whale isolated and allow them to reach him.

  • One trainer said, “it took approximately 25 to 30 minutes to get Dawn’s body away,” and added: “I could see that he had her in his mouth either by her hair or arm and she did not look conscious any time I could see her.”
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  • Even after Tilikum was lifted out of the water, Brancheau still could not be freed until the whale’s jaws were pried open, reports AP.

Brancheau, 40, who had worked with killer whales for 16 years, was laid to rest on Monday in Alsip, Ill.