Autopsy: SeaWorld trainer died of blunt injuries, drowning in killer whale attack

By Antonio Gonzalez, AP
Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Autopsy: SeaWorld trainer died of trauma, drowning

ORLANDO, Fla. — A SeaWorld Orlando trainer attacked by a killer whale died of drowning and blunt-force trauma to her head, neck and torso, an autopsy released Wednesday showed.

The report by the Medical Examiner’s Office ruled Dawn Brancheau’s official cause of death as drowning and traumatic injuries. Her death was ruled an accident, and toxicology tests found no drugs in her system.

The killer whale snatched the 40-year-old trainer from a poolside platform in its jaws and thrashed her around underwater, killing her in front of a horrified audience Feb. 24. It marked the third time the animal, named Tilikum, had been involved in a human death.

SeaWorld Orlando spokeswoman Becca Bides said the park did not have any comment on the autopsy.

Members of the audience said Brancheau’s interaction with the whale appeared leisurely and informal at first. But then the whale pulled her under, swinging her around in his mouth. An alarm sounded and staff rushed the audience out of the stadium as workers scrambled around with nets while others called authorities.

Brancheau suffered a fracture to part of her vertebra and lower jaw, according to the autopsy. The report also showed that she dislocated her left elbow and left knee and had lacerations on her right ear.

SeaWorld has removed Tilikum from its daily shows and ordered its trainers to keep their distance from the animal. He is twice as big as any other orca at the park. The park imposed the restrictions while it reviews its killer whale safety protocols.

Tilikum continues to live in the park’s seven-tank orca complex and learns new behaviors now that trainers don’t get close to him.

Also Wednesday, a Florida judge extended a temporary order prohibiting the release of images from law enforcement’s investigation and a video of Brancheau’s death. Without the order, the material would become public under Florida law once the Orange County Sheriff’s Office concludes its investigation.

An attorney for several media organizations said at a hearing last week that she didn’t object to an extension of the injunction so that all sides could reach a resolution. Recent precedents have allowed news organizations to view images but not make copies for public dissemination.

The judge on Wednesday added The Associated Press to the group of media organizations involved in the case.

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