SeaWorld trainers describe death by killer whale

SANFORD, Fla Thu Sep 22, 2011 7:47pm EDT

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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. Significantly, SeaWorld might also be forced to end physical interaction between trainers and killer whales, company lawyer Carla Gunnin said at the hearing this week.

SeaWorld trainers have not performed or interacted in the water with killer whales since Brancheau's death, with one exception in a medical emergency, Gunnin said.

Administrative Judge Ken Welsch said the proceedings will recess after Friday but continue again in October or November with more testimony.

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.

SeaWorld animal trainer Shana Groves described an incident in 2006, when a different killer whale, Ikaika, bit down on her thigh during a public performance.

In that instance, the whale responded to her command to open his mouth, testified Groves, who said she asked for and received a transfer out of the killer whale show as a result of Brancheau's drowning.

Testifying for OSHA, killer whale expert David Duffus acknowledged that SeaWorld's training methods appeared to decrease the odds that a trainer would get hurt when interacting physically with a killer whale.

But Duffus, an associate professor at the University of Victoria in British Columbia, said SeaWorld's own incident logs demonstrate the unpredictability of killer whales, making it impossible to guarantee that no one would get hurt.

"If it only happens once in a million, but in that millionth time that is a catastrophe, I think that goes beyond probability," Duffus said.

Duffus said Tilikum treated Brancheau in the same way the professor has seen many killer whales in the wild dunk and thrash around with seals and other food sources.

"Maybe I'm just practical," Duffus said. "I think it would be complete folly to put yourself in close proximity to a killer whale where they could seize you or knock you into the water."

(Editing by Colleen Jenkins, Jerry Norton and Cynthia Johnston)

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