Last night Florida's Orange County medical examiner released the autopsy report on the death of SeaWorld trainer Dawn Brancheau. The report cites "multiple traumatic injuries and drowning" as the cause of death. The excessive injuries she suffered are contradictory to earlier reports that her death, on February 24th, 2010, was accidental, the result of over-zealous horseplay on the part of a killer whale she had been working with. It is clear from her injuries—and subsequent witness accounts that her body had to be pried from the orca's mouth, that this was a brutally violent attack.
Initial reports indicated that Brancheau had fallen into the tank, but these reports were amended after investigators examined witness statements and concluded that Brancheau had been grabbed by her ponytail and pulled into the tank by the 12,000-pound killer whale named Tilikum. There was also speculation that Brancheau may have inadvertently provoked Tilikum into the playful frenzy that resulted in his holding her underwater until she drowned.
A seven-minute home video shot by a SeaWorld tourist just seconds before the attack, and released by Florida television station WESH, clearly shows Brancheau laughing and playing with Tilikum in the water literally seconds before her death. This video does not show the attack, and it also does not show how, or where, Brancheau entered the tank. But the video does show that she didn't seem to be panicked or in fear of Tilikum. Nor were her fellow trainers panicked in their calls to 911.
Perhaps Brancheau, and her co-trainers, should have been more concerned on that day. Dawn Brancheau was not Tilikum's first victim. He had already been blamed in the deaths of two other people. In 1991 he and two other orcas sharing his tank were blamed in the death of a marine trainer in British Columbia, Canada. Tilikum's horseplay was also blamed in the 1999 death of a 27-year-old man whose body was found mysteriously floating in the killer whale's holding tank.
Brancheau's family has requested that autopsy photos, as well as video from SeaWorld's surveillance cameras, not be released to the public, but the medical examiner has released his findings. According to a news video released this morning on The Today Show, the medical examiner found blunt force injuries, broken ribs, broken sternum, dislocated elbow/knee, abrasions and contusions. Parts of the autopsy report are extremely graphic, saying that Brancheau's arm had been ripped from her body, her scalp torn from her skull and her spinal cord severed.