SeaWorld Trainer Killed by Whale Had Fractured Jaw and Dislocated Joints

Trainer Dawn Brancheau died of blunt force trauma to head, neck and torso.

ByMARK MOONEY via logo
March 31, 2010, 3:53 PM

March 31, 2010— -- SeaWorld's killer whale Tilikum broke its trainer's jaw, fractured part of her vertebra and dislocated one of her elbows and a knee while thrashing her around its pool, according to an autopsy released today.

The autopsy determined that Dawn Brancheau died of blunt force trauma to the head, neck and torso, and drowning when the giant orca yanked her into SeaWorld's pool Feb. 24.

The orca's was so violent with Brancheau that part of her scalp was "forcibly torn from the head," the autopsy said.

The 40-year-old trainer was at ease with the killer whale and had just petted him on the nose. However, in a scene that horrified SeaWorld visitors, Tilikum grabbed her long ponytail when she turned her back, pulled her into the pool and began swinging her around in its mouth.

SeaWorld patrons quickly were ushered out of the area and workers tried to corral Tilikum, but by the time they retrieved Brancheau's body she was dead.

The whale's violent motions fractured Brancheau's lower jaw, part of her vertebra and several ribs, the autopsy determined. She also dislocated her left elbow and left ear. In addition, she had scrapes on her right ear.

The autopsy was released as SeaWorld and Brancheau's family await a court ruling on their request to keep private a video of the fatal attack. The whale's attack was recorded by SeaWorld's surveillance cameras.

An attorney for Brancheau's family, Jon Mills, argued that the family's right to privacy outweighed the public's right to view the video.

"There is no constitutional right to voyeurism and there is a constitutional right to privacy," Mills said.

Unless a judge intervenes, the material will become public under Florida law once the Orange County Sheriff's Office concludes its investigation.

Tilikum, a male or bull whale, has lived at the park since 1992, and is the largest of SeaWorld's eight killer whales.

Since Brancheau's death, Tilikum has been removed from SeaWorld's show and new protocols keep trainers away from the whale.

Tilikum the Killer Whale Has Killed Before

Tilikum has been involved twice before in human deaths.

In 1991, trainer Keltie Lee Byrne fell into a tank holding Tilikum and two other whales at Sealand of the Pacific in Victoria, Canada. A homicide inquest found that the whales had prevented Byrne from climbing out of the tank and ruled her death an accident.

After he was transferred to SeaWorld in Orlando, Tilikum was again connected to the death of a person in 1999.

The body of Daniel Dukes, 27, was found naked and draped across the giant whale's body in July 1999. Dukes reportedly got past security at SeaWorld, remaining in the park after it had closed. Wearing only his underwear, Dukes jumped, fell or was pulled into the frigid water of Tilikum's huge tank.

An autopsy ruled that he died of hypothermia in the 50-degree water. Dukes' parents filed a lawsuit against the park that year but later withdrew it.

The Associated Press contributed to this report

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