February 24, 2010 / 10:47 PM / 7 years ago

UPDATE 1-Whale kills trainer at Florida's SeaWorld

* Conflicting accounts over how incident happened

* Orca linked to two previous theme park deaths (Adds quote, details)

By Jane Sutton

MIAMI, Feb 24 (Reuters) - A killer whale at the SeaWorld amusement park in central Florida killed a trainer on Wednesday, a sheriff's spokesman said.

"She apparently slipped and fell into the tank and was fatally injured by one of the whales," Orange County Sheriff's spokesman Jim Solomons said.

The 40-year-old trainer was dead when rescue officials arrived, he said.

Media reports said the orca at the park's Shamu Stadium grabbed the woman by the waist, thrashed her about and dragged her underwater.

The trainer was killed in the whale holding area just before the start of a public performance and the stadium was immediately evacuated.

Dan Brown, president of SeaWorld Orlando, said the victim was one of the park's most experienced animal trainers.

There were conflicting reports about how the incident occurred. The Orlando Sentinel quoted a spectator as saying the whale came up from the water and grabbed the trainer by her waist. The sheriff's official said preliminary accounts indicated she slipped and fell in, but that was still under investigation.

The Florida park is owned by the Blackstone Group (BX.N), a private equity company that also owns part of the Universal Orlando theme park.

A spokesman for SeaWorld in San Diego, California, said killer whale shows have been suspended following the death in Orlando.

According to the Orlando Sentinel, the orca involved in Wednesday's incident, named Tillikum but popularly known as "Tilly," has a controversial past.

The whale was blamed for the drowning of one of his trainers in 1991 while he was performing at Sealand of the Pacific in Victoria, British Columbia, the newspaper said.

Sold to SeaWorld as a stud in 1992, the whale was involved in a second incident when authorities discovered the body of a naked man lying across his back in July 1999.

Authorities said the man, who had either snuck into SeaWorld after hours or hidden in the park until it closed, most likely drowned after suffering hypothermia in the 55-degree (12.7 C) water.

A former contractor with SeaWorld told the Sentinel that Tillikum is typically kept isolated from SeaWorld's other killer whales and that trainers were not allowed to get in the water with him because of his history. (Editing by Tom Brown and Sandra Maler)

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