EXCLUSIVE: SeaWorld Appeals Ruling in Trainer's Death as Eyewitness Interviews Are Released

Graphic details surface in recently obtained first hand accounts of Dawn Brancheau's tragic 2010 death.

Dawn Brancheau, a whale trainer at SeaWorld Adventure Park, is shown performing at SeaWorld in this December 30, 2005 photograph. (Photo: Orlando Sentinel/Contributor via Getty Images)

Nov 20, 2012· 5 MIN READ
David Kirby has been a professional journalist for 25 years. His third book, Death at Seaworld, was published in 2012.

This week, attorneys for SeaWorld Florida and the Obama administration are completing briefs for a showdown in U.S. federal court, where SeaWorld will try to overturn a lower-court ruling against the park in the February 24, 2010 death of trainer Dawn Brancheau. Now, through the Freedom of Information Act, TakePart has obtained eyewitness interviews conducted by the Orange County Sheriff’s office on or around that fateful day.

The federal judges hearing SeaWorld’s appeal should also listen to these tapes: They portray a horrific afternoon of violence and terror as the 12,000-pound killer whale Tilikum grabbed his trainer, pulled her underwater, scalped, rammed and dismembered her, and then refused to relinquish her body.

The Brancheau audio tapes, shocking and gruesome as they may be, are critical pieces of evidence that provide the public—and the judges—with fresh insight into what really happened on the day when Tilikum went on the attack after performing in “Dine with Shamu,” a behind-the-scenes poolside dining experience, in one of the back pools at Orlando.

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These eyewitness accounts make it abundantly clear why such close proximity to the ocean’s apex predator can create an unsafe workplace, to put it mildly.

In August 2010, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) slapped SeaWorld with a “willful” violation (the most severe), a $75,000 fine, and an order to “abate” workplace hazards by keeping trainers away from all orcas, not just Tilikum.

In the fall of 2011, SeaWorld sued OSHA to overturn the citation and vacate the abatements. But the following May, Administrative Law Judge Ken Welsch upheld the abatements and ordered SeaWorld to comply with the OSHA safety requirements (though he did reduce the violation from willful to serious).

Last summer, SeaWorld filed an appeal at a special Labor Department commission, which refused to hear the case. Now the entertainment company has filed a “petition for review” at the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, which will decide if OSHA acted properly or not.

You be the judge. Below is a brief summary of three eyewitness interviews, along with audio links to each. More interviews will be published at a later date.

“He just became an animal.”

— Lynne Schaber, spotter trainer at the “Dine With Shamu” show on February 24, 2010

Interviewed by Orange County Sheriff’s Office on February 24, 2010 at 3:53 PM, shortly after Brancheau died.

Schaber was the “spotter trainer” (safety observer) during the show and was downstairs with about 30 guests and staffers in the underwater viewing area when Tilikum grabbed Dawn and proceeded to ram and kill her. She remains remarkably calm during the interview, which is, perhaps, attributable to emotional shock.

Even though Dawn was lying down in eight to ten inches of water on a shallow ledge, right next to the massive orca, SeaWorld did not consider this to be “water work”—something that was banned with Tilikum because he had already been involved in two human deaths. The government argued powerfully in court that SeaWorld had committed gross negligence for allowing any employee to be in such a vulnerable position and, here, Schaber repeats the party line. “It is contact, but not in the water,” she says of Brancheau. “She was with contact with the whale at the surface, dry.”

And though she’d been at SeaWorld for eight years, including work with Tilikum, Schaber was woefully unaware of the details surrounding his killer reputation and two previous killings. “I am not the person who has the details of his history,” she says, shockingly. “I know that one was, I think, a guest that stayed in the park after hours and got in the pool but I’m not sure, I know that SeaWorld has information about that one. And the other one was a former trainer. So my management staff would have information on that.” The other victim was actually a trainer at a park in Victoria, BC, before Tilikum was sold to SeaWorld, underscoring Schaber’s ignorance of his history.

Schaber’s descriptions of her friend and colleague’s awful demise are chilling. “I don’t know if he ever brought her to the surface, but when she was at the surface she was already unconscious,” she recalls here. “He just became an animal, you know, not tamed…that’s just naturally how they are…He’s a possessive animal, his history is that he keeps things in the water with him.”

“This is not part of the show. Get the kids out of here!”

– Jessica Wilder, guest at “Dine With Shamu”

Interviewed by Orange County Sheriff’s Office on February 26, 2010, 9:51 AM

When the “Dine with Shamu” event concluded, Wilder went down to the underwater viewing area to watch Tilikum from beneath the surface. She was one of the few people to witness the attack from that angle. Here, she describes in gripping detail how he repeatedly rammed Dawn, circling around to gain speed before impact. “She’s spread-eagle, not in the typical trainers’ fashion,” Wilder says. “She was scrambling to get out. I saw her kicking, and I saw her trying to get out, and it seemed like a split second later the whale was approaching her.”

Wilder turned to the mother next to her. “’This is not part of the show, get the kids out of here,’” she warned. And then, suddenly, “here comes the whale…He lifted his snout up and impacted her squarely in the chest…then the whale left her and went to do another loop.”

Wilder says she knew that Dawn was still alive at that point, “because I saw her attempt to ball herself up,” in vain hopes of self-protection. “And the whale came around again, and he was headed squarely for her waist,” she says. “We started to walk off and I turned and at that point I just saw the woman’s legs.”

Wilder’s account concurs with those of other witnesses who report that staff did not sound the alarm right away, a direct contradiction to claims made by the third trainer at “Dine with Shamu” that day, Jan Topoleski. He says he sounded the alarm immediately after Dawn went under, but Wilder remembers it differently. “There were no alarm bells that sounded, there was nothing, the attendant there did nothing,” she says, under oath, about those first frightful minutes. “We were on the top when the alarm bell sounded.”

“I’m getting that body. I’m getting my friend.”

— Laura Surovik, Assistant Curator of Animal Training and close friend of Dawn Brancheau

Interviewed by Orange County Sheriff’s Office, February 24, 2010, 4:58PM.

Like Lynne Schaber, Surovik also displays extraordinary composure as she describes the efforts to get the rampaging Tilikum to relinquish Dawn. The 24-year park veteran calls Shamu Stadium her “home,” adding that, “I was here the day that Tilikum was brought in.” Dawn, she says touchingly in the present tense, “is my best friend.”

Surovik was at another stadium when the attack started, but she ran to help direct the effort to recover Dawn. “There were too many people and too much commotion. With killer whales, when there are so many people around, it will just excite them even more,” she states in another powerful testament to the dangers of the job. “They’ll latch onto the victim even greater.”

Once Tilikum was isolated in the medical pool and raised up on the false bottom, Surovik asked to clear people away, pleading that Dawn was “already gone and we don’t want him to mangle her body.” Then she put on a wetsuit and risked her own safety. “I made the decision,” she recalls. “I’m getting that body. I’m getting my friend.”

The recovery was anguishing. “He had her arm,” she says of Tilikum. “I could see her head. I could also see that her hair was missing. And he was shaking back and forth and I just said, ‘It’s alright baby, settle down.’ And I went and I got her and I cradled her torso. And I said, ‘It’s alright, let go.’ ”

Dawn was put on a stretcher and her wetsuit cut open. “Was her arm still attached?” the detective asks Surovik. A long pause ensues. “I don’t know because I was looking at her face,” she says. “My husband (Mike) told me—this is our ‘sister ring’—and that was the hand that he got. So I think the arm was gone because Mike said it was the hand that our ring was on.”

When it was over, Tilikum did not want to leave the pool, “because of Dawn,” Surovik says. “He knew she was there,” by the water’s edge. She went to an adjacent pool and tried to call him, slapping the surface. “He would look at me and respond. But it was like, ‘I gotta stay here.’ ” Dawn, she concludes, “was his possession at that point…it’s his, and it’s almost like, ‘Don’t try to take that away.’”