Sea World did not do enough to keep its employees safe from killer whale Tilikum, with officials telling trainers that anyone who got into a pool with him "would come out as a corpse," the park's former head of safety is alleging.
Linda Simons, who was fired from her job at Sea World in the wake of the investigation into trainer Dawn Brancheau's death, is now speaking out on what she calls questionable or even dangerous safety practices at the Florida park that could result in another tragedy.
"I want to make sure that it is investigated and that the safety of the team members that remain is not jeopardized," Simons told "Good Morning America" today. "I think that if they're put into that close proximity [with the whales] it could easily happen again."
Simons' allegations come ahead of the results of an investigation into Brancheau's death scheduled to be released today by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.
But Simons' lawyer, Maurice Arcadier, said she was prevented from giving all of the documentation she wanted to OSHA for their investigation. He suggested an impartial panel be appointed to investigate separately.
Brancheau's Feb. 24 death was a horrifying sideshow during a February performance. Caught on tape by a tourist playfully feeding Tilikum, who had killed two people previously, Brancheau was suddenly yanked under the water by her ponytail and shaken violently.
Sea World had prohibited its trainers from getting into the pool with Tilikum given his history, but in the moments before her death, Brancheau was laying down on a shallow platform submerged a few inches into the water.
Simons said everyone who came to work at Sea World was given what she called the "Tili talk" -- a warning about the killer whale that had killed a Canadian trainer in 1991 and a man who sneaked into his holding area in 1999.
"They talk to you about going into the water with Tili," she said. "That if you go into the water with Tili you would come out as a corpse."
Sea World released a statement blasting Simons' accusations and saying she "used the threat of negative publicity to seek a sizable monetary payment from SeaWorld in exchange for her not going public with these false allegations."
"Linda Simons worked for SeaWorld for only a few weeks and was fired not for the reasons she cites, but rather for poor performance during the OSHA inspection of Dawn Brancheau's death," the statement read. " During those critical weeks, Ms. Simons repeatedly demonstrated an inability to conduct herself to the acceptable standard of competence, transparency, integrity or professionalism demanded of an inspection of this magnitude."
Former Sea World Employee Cites Poorly Run Drills, Ongoing Safety Issues
Simons, who had been Sea World's director of health and safety for just a week when Brancheau was killed, said even the "chaotic" response to the attack was questionable.
"I saw very disturbing images that I felt team members were being placed in danger," she said, citing people running in high heels and employees who were let back into the pool to rescue Brancheau from Tilikum's mouth, even as the whale was still thrashing wildly.
Simons said she became well-versed in the park's training procedures and policies after Brancheau's death and while investigating policy came across a poorly executing training exercise that had taken place just weeks before the attack.
Some employees didn't respond at all during the drill, she said, and of those who did, many didn't follow protocol.
The report "was less than a page long, a timeline of when people responded. I asked where the critique was," Simons said. "They said that was not completed because the drill went so badly they were going to run another drill."
Thad Lacinak, former head trainer at SeaWorld and Brancheau's mentor told "Good Morning in America" in February that he believed Tilikum was interested in Brancheau's ponytail and that it was her mistake in violating protocol by laying in the pool with him.
"Dawn, if she was standing here with me right now, would tell you that it was her, that was her mistake in allowing that to happen," Lacinak said in February.
After Brancheau's death, Sea World barred trainers from being in the water with all of the killer whales.
People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals has now also gotten involved in the investigation and has called for Florida's governor to appoint a special prosecutor to go after Sea World for manslaughter.