An animal trainer at SeaWorld Orlando was killed this afternoon in front of horrified theme park visitors by an orca that reportedly was involved in two previous deaths.
"It is with great sadness that I report that one of our most experienced animal trainers drowned in an incident with one of our killer whales this afternoon," SeaWorld General Manager Dan Brown said in a statement. "We've initiated an investigation to determine, to the extent possible, what occurred. There are no other details to report at this time."
As the investigation proceeds, the area of the park that contained the whale has been shut down and the guests evacuated, the Orlando Sentinel said. The newspaper reported that other areas of the Florida park remain open.
Investigators did not immediately release the trainer's name, but The Associated Press identified her as 40-year-old Dawn Brancheau, who had spent more than a decade working with killer whales.
A witness interviewed by CBS affiliate WKMG Local 6 said she saw the whale leap out of the water and grab the woman, who was in the middle of introducing the whale and explaining to onlookers what they would see during the show.
"He was thrashing her around pretty good. It was violent," the witness told Local 6.
But a spokesman for the Orange County sheriff's office described the incident differently.
"We had a female trainer back in the whale holding area. She apparently slipped or fell into the tank and was fatally injured by one of the whales," said spokesman Jim Solomons.
Numerous sources said the animal responsible for the attack is a 12,000-pound, 30-year-old male called Tilikum -- "Friend" in the Chinook Native American language -- that has been linked to two prior human fatalities.
The first occurred in 1991 at the now-defunct Sealand of the Pacific park in Canada. Tilikum and two female whales drowned a 20-year-old marine biology student and part-time animal trainer in front of other staff members, according to the New York Daily News.
Then in 1999, Tilikum -- who had been transferred to SeaWorld following the closure of Sealand of the Pacific -- was found one morning with a 27-year-old homeless man on his back, also drowned, CBS Orlando 4 reported. The man had apparently remained hidden in the park until closing and then climbed into the tank or sneaked in after hours.
Julie Fletcher, Orlando Sentinel / MCT
Animal trainer Dawn Brancheau, shown here performing on Dec. 30, 2005, was killed in an accident with a killer whale at SeaWorld in Orlando, Fla., on Wednesday.
She trusts SeaWorld to conduct a thorough internal investigation to determine what went wrong in this case and believes that it will adjust its policies accordingly.
Meanwhile, Rose said that the Humane Society would prefer to see Tilikum retired to an area of SeaWorld where he is not involved in "stressful" public performances. While the organization does not support euthanizing the animal, she recommends allowing trainers to have an "elephant gun" handy to put down any animals that threaten human safety.
She also said that Tilikum's behavior may indicate that he is close to the end of his own life. "He may be days away from dying. Whales can go off their feed and be dead within 48 hours. They often hide their illnesses, so it's difficult to know. Clearly he was acting out for some reason in this incident."
The orca, or "killer" whale, is actually the largest member of the dolphin family. The animals get their nickname from the fact that they sometimes hunt actual whales for food and are the "most widely distributed mammal in the world" besides humans, according to MarineBio.org.