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Throwback: Documents show SeaWorld waited 27 mins to call 911 after attack

Throwback: Documents show SeaWorld waited 27 mins to call 911 after attack

Tilikum. Image: Milan Boers. Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic

Tilikum. Image: Milan Boers. Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic

On February 24, 2010, Tilikum killed senior SeaWorld trainer Dawn Brancheau. Dawn would be the third person killed by SeaWorld's prime bull orca, and the fourth to be killed by a SeaWorld-owned orca. This article was first published in March 2012. Lest we forget, a version of the original article appears below in remembrance of those killed: Keltie Byrne, Daniel Dukes; Alexis Martinez and Dawn Brancheau.  


Nobody has ever answered why SeaWorld waited 27 minutes before calling 911 after trainer Dawn Brancheau was killed during a relationship session with Tilikum. If anything, the extended wait to call emergency services has never been explained despite damning official documents filed by the Orange County Sheriff's Office (OCSO). Like Daniel Dukes's death, it has never been fully explained. 

The forty-year-old experienced SeaWorld trainer was killed by the 12,000 lb. male orca after a 'Dine with Shamu' performance at SeaWorld Florida. The subsequent autopsy determined that Dawn had died of blunt force trauma to the head, neck and torso.

"Whatever he hits he destroys." -- Nicoli Koloff. Rocky V.

The injuries sustained by Brancheau are gut twisting. Tilikum had broken the trainer's jaw, her neck, and dislocated one of her elbows. Also, according to the autopsy report, the whale had "forcibly" torn part of her scalp from her head and dismembered her left arm.

This wasn't an accidental drowning. Tilikum was not playing, and this wasn't Dawn's fault.

Brancheau’s death was the fourth death caused by captive orcas and followed the deaths of Keltie Byrne at Sea Land of the Pacific in 1991; Daniel Dukes in 1999 and Alexis Martinez at Loro Parque in 2009. Tilikum was also implicated in the deaths of both Byrne and Dukes.

SeaWorld imported Tilikum from Sealand of the Pacific in Vancouver, British Columbia, after Byrne's death. The company was more than aware of the orca's history, suggests the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) investigation report into Brancheau's death. 

Even the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) aired concerns over the whales SeaWorld looked to import. Prior to issuing the permit for public display, they asked the company in a letter (Dec. 17, 1991), if the corporation had considered the tragic incident at Sealand, and what actions it would take to prevent a reoccurrence prior to and after, acquiring Tilikum.

SeaWorld's response was that it had been implementing enhanced employee training and safety since 1987. Due to this training they suggested, there had been no accidents involving killer whales at SeaWorld facilities.

The park asserted that it was "generally familiar" with the circumstances surrounding the death of Byrne but admitted that it did "not have any of Sealand's reports in this matter." The marine park urged NMFS to seek these reports directly from the Government of Canada and ultimately blamed the Byrne incident on "poor pool design" not relevant to SeaWorld facilities.

A follow-up letter on Jan. 14, 1992, from Anne Terbush of NMFS, again urged SeaWorld to "obtain and closely examine all relevant reports." The Fisheries Service said it believed the Sealand incident to be "a significant enough event," to require further addressing. Terbush added that SeaWorld should also consider implementing any recommendations made in these reports, to address the "care and maintenance" of the orcas after they were imported.

SeaWorld responded to Ms. Terbush's concerns on Feb 14, 1992, by informing NMFS that its company had undertaken a review of the Workers Compensation Board-Employer's Accident Investigation Report along with Sealand's policy statements. Their conclusion of the incident, SeaWorld said, only reinforced their previous assertions that the incident was unique to Sealand. It was not clear whether the company had bothered to obtain either the Work Safe BC Accident Inspection report or the Verdict of the Coroner's Inquest.

OSHA and SeaWorld had differing views on  Byrne's death. The marine mammal park regarded the trainer's death as accidental but upon further investigation by OSHA, it was deemed anything but. OSHA considered a description of the incident by both the 'Seattle Times' and a PBS 'Frontline' report, which both indicated the orcas' willful intent to keep Byrne in the pool with them.

Still, Tilikum arrived from Vancouver with a history, one the corporation failed to pass on to its staff, said Voice of the Orcas' member, Samantha Berg on the CBS 'Early Show'.

My understanding of the animal’s past was very limited. In fact, there had been 30 incidents between killer whales, and trainers prior to my being hired at the park. And I didn’t know about any of them until after I left SeaWorld. So I think that’s a serious mistake on SeaWorld’s part that they weren’t letting people know the history of all the animals.
— Former SeaWorld trainer Samantha Berg

In August 2010, six months after Dawn's death and at the conclusion of its investigation, OSHA slapped SeaWorld with a $75,000 fine for a “willful” safety violation. SeaWorld, it said, had exposed its employees “to struck-by and drowning hazards when interacting with killer whales.” An example of this type of hazard can be seen in the video below:

SeaWorld appealed OSHA’s citation which resulted in a two-part hearing presided over by Administrative Law Judge Kenneth S. Welsch. Welsch subsequently ruled that SeaWorld trainers be protected by a physical barrier or something else providing the same level of safety. 

SeaWorld was not happy with the decision. It had prevailed over OSHA before, but not at the federal level. Five months after Brancheau's death, the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), called on Florida Attorney General Bill McCollum, to intervene in the case and pursue involuntary manslaughter charges against SeaWorld and its senior executives, for the death of Dawn Brancheau.

The evidence PETA presented was a thoroughly researched document that was supported by 165 pages of exhibits from Orange County's own Sheriff's Office (OCSO). PETA described OCSO's investigation documents as inept and inadequate.

PETA also included a 2007 Cal/OSHA investigation on Kenneth "Petey" Peters. Peters was attacked by a female orca named Kasatka at SeaWorld San Diego in 2006 and suffered serious injuries after being bitten and dragged underwater during a performance.

The OSHA report also detailed other attacks by orcas including how trainers had been, "bitten, rammed, dragged to the bottom of the pool and held underwater."

The investigation into the Peters' incident forced Cal/OSHA to conclude:

The contributing factors to the accident, in the simplest of terms, is that swimming with captive orcas is inherently dangerous and if someone hasn’t been killed already, it is only a matter of time before it does happen.
— Cal/OSHA

What should have been a warning bell for SeaWorld and indeed for Cal/OSHA, was instead rescinded by the state agency after SeaWorld complained. 

PETA's pursual of involuntary manslaughter charges against SeaWorld slammed OCSO for several blunders. The foundation said that OCSO had failed to interview many of the witnesses to the incident despite an awareness of Tilikum's history. Additionally, PETA explained, the Sheriff's Office never requested any records on Tilikum and neglected to question a single SeaWorld executive about what happened.

The organization blasted what it described as a "shameful attempt" by the park, to place the "blame for this incident on Ms. Brancheau."

Having read the Orange County Sheriff's Office Investigative Report: Case Number 2010-016715 on the death of Dawn Brancheau, there were 41 interviews conducted by OCSO and all but three of them were conducted with SeaWorld employees. Only two interviews actually involved guests.

Alarmingly,  OCSO was also not notified of Tilikum's attack on Dawn until 27 minutes after the incident first occurred. Fredy Herrera, a security officer employed at SeaWorld, said in a written report to OSCO:

At approx 1:37 PM [...] I did observe Shamu trainer Dawn petting the whale named Tilikum at the concrete area of the pool when the whale grabbed the trainer’s arm and pulled her into the pool and would not let go. At that moment, trainer Jay was present and saw the whole incident, then he ran to the alarm box and I called in a signal 500 (water rescue), then all emergency personnel started to arrive.

Although the code was immediately issued, this did not signal 911. The code alerts SeaWorld's own dispatch, who must then choose to notify the authorities. From OCSO's investigations:

On Thursday, February 24, 2010, at approximately 1337 hours, SeaWorld security received a call concerning a trainer in the water at the Dine with Shamu encounter. At approximately 1404 hours, this information was relayed to the Orange County Sheriff’s Office Communications Center.
— Orange County Sheriff's Office

Twenty-seven minutes after the initial code was first given and twenty minutes after Dawn was observed pale and lifeless.

Image courtesy: Voice of the Orcas. This authentic but blurry image of the rescue attempt to deploy the net and aid Dawn was taken from the timeline of the camera at G Pool. Dawn's body was noted as lifeless at 7 minutes, with the 911 call still around 19 minutes from being forwarded to the Sheriff's office.

When the 911 call is finally made, "Joe" asks for SO (Sheriff's Office) to respond to Shamu Stadium because a "whale has eaten one of the trainers." Almost in disbelief, the recipient of the call asks the notifying party to clarify his statement. Listen to the 911 call HERE.

The delay in notification to OCSO is one of several questionable incidents that ought to have raised and should still raise, red flags over Brancheau's death. By the time OCSO had responded to the scene, many of the "public" witnesses had been escorted away by SeaWorld.

In its final report, OSCO wrote that most of the witnesses had been moved to an area called 'The Terrace' for questioning. These potential witnesses were all SeaWorld employees, bar one, who was a visiting tourist from the Netherlands.

One female witness from Vermont who observed the incident said she saw Tilikum impact Brancheau "squarely in the chest." She was not escorted to The Terrace but "escorted out of the area" by SeaWorld staff. The female finally gave her sworn statement to OSCO after contacting them, two days after the incident.

There were several guests in attendance watching the 'Shamu Show' the day Dawn was killed. Many were not interviewed even though these guests are required to make reservations and sign-in upon arrival. None of these lists were provided by SeaWorld to OSCO, and OSCO never requested them for their investigation.

PETA's report also referred to a third guest witness, one who offered SeaWorld a video of the events preceding Tilikum's attack on Brancheau. SeaWorld declined the guest's offer in favor of their own cameras. But PETA reported that SeaWorld's cameras were not even focused on the pool until after SeaWorld dispatch received the alarm and manually redirected them.

OCSO readily supplies the full timeline of Tilikum and Dawn Brancheau's movements which were captured on camera between 13:38:10.76 and 14:01:05.23. Each movement is time stamped at varying intervals. Prior to Dawn's retrieval from Tilikum, and three minutes before the call was made to the Sheriff's department, those cameras were turned off.

Nothing can change what happened to Dawn, to Alexis, to Keltie, and to Daniel Dukes, but six years after Brancheau's death blew the lid off of SeaWorld, there are still too many unanswered questions.

They should never be forgotten.

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