SeaWorld trainers describe colleague's death by killer whale

Reuters News
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Posted: Sep 22, 2011 2:48 PM
SeaWorld trainers describe colleague's death by killer whale

By Barbara Liston

SANFORD, Fla (Reuters) - A former SeaWorld employee recalled on Thursday watching a 12,000-pound killer whale pull a trainer underwater by her ponytail in 2010 and hold on to her for up to 45 minutes.

Jan Topoleski said Dawn Brancheau, 40, had been working to get the orca bull named Tilikum to lay on his back in his pool next to where Brancheau was lying on a shallow ledge.

"I saw her get up to her knees and put her hand to her ponytail, when I saw she couldn't break free," said Topoleski, who worked as a killer whale trainer and spotter at the Orlando, Florida amusement park at the time of the incident.

He said his last image of Brancheau was that she had "both hands on her ponytail being pulled into the water."

Topoleski, who now works with FBI dogs, testified in the fourth day of a federal hearing in Sanford, where SeaWorld is challenging safety charges that stem from Brancheau's death.

The most serious charge by the Department of Labor's Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) is classified as a "willful violation," meaning SeaWorld showed "plain indifference to or intentional disregard for employee safety and health."

Federal lawyer John Black has said SeaWorld offers its trainers little more protection than lessons in how to recognize visual clues that a killer whale might become aggressive.

The company faces a $75,000 fine. More significantly, SeaWorld might be forced to end physical interaction between trainers and killer whales, company lawyer Carla Gunnin said at the hearing this week.

NO RESPONSE TO SIGNALS

Topoleski testified he sounded an alarm after Brancheau was grabbed by Tilikum and executed rehearsed callback signals in an attempt to get the whale to let Brancheau go.

"Tilikum did not respond to callback signals?" federal lawyer Tremelle Howard-Fishburne asked.

"During the rescue operation, he did not," Topoleski said.

Topoleski said Tilikum held onto Brancheau for 40-45 minutes until the whale was corralled in a smaller section of the pool.

Earlier on Thursday, another SeaWorld animal trainer who helped try to rescue Brancheau broke down on the witness stand when she was shown a photo of herself standing next to Tilikum.

"That's where I was standing when the incident occurred," trainer Shana Groves told federal administrative judge Ken Welsch, who asked why the photo upset her.

Groves, who said she asked for and received a transfer out of the killer whale show as a result of the drowning, testified she raced to the pool when the alarm sounded and helped throw a net trainers are taught to use in emergencies to try to distract an out-of-control whale.

Groves also described an incident in 2006, when a different killer whale, Ikaika, bit down on her thigh during a public performance. Groves said she was performing a maneuver in which she would lie down on the pool side and ask the whale to lie down in the water next to her, but Ikaika instead chose to grab her thigh.

"I asked him for a mouth open. He opened his mouth. I sent him on bows, which are jumps," Groves said.

Groves said she wrote up an incident report about Ikaika as required by SeaWorld when a killer whale acts in a way that could become aggressive. Groves testified she was surprised to learn from federal lawyers that SeaWorld did not include her report in the killer whale incident log provided to OSHA.

The hearing is scheduled to last a week, and a ruling could take several months.

(Editing by Colleen Jenkins and Jerry Norton)