Disturbing Details Found In SeaWorld Trainer Dawn Brancheau's Autopsy Report

When SeaWorld trainer Dawn Brancheau was pulled into a swim tank by an orca named Tilikum at the tail end of a performance on February 24, 2010, the other trainers immediately knew the situation was very bad. According to the Orange County Sheriff's Office Investigative Report on the terrifying incident, trainers were not allowed in the water with Tilikum because of his past history — he had already killed two people at other marine parks when they ended up in the pool with him, per Whale Sanctuary Project

By various witness accounts Brancheau was on a platform in the water, laying on her belly, performing nose to nose with the whale when her ponytail went into his mouth. She tried to get it free but Tilikum wouldn't let go. Instead, he pulled the 40-year-old trainer into his tank. 

In the OCSO Investigative Report, witnesses said that at first she was "scrambling" to get out of the pool, but within seconds Tilikum struck her, at least one time impacting Brancheau "squarely in the chest." Then, he grabbed her with his mouth, where he would hold on to her for more than 30 minutes underwater as other trainers and staff worked to corral the 12,000 pound orca.

According to witnesses who had worked with Tilikum, he was known as "possessive," or an animal that would not release items once he had them. In this case he seemed to hold on to Brancheau as if she were his possession, by one witness account. 

Dawn Brancheau died from blunt force injuries and drowning

Once Tilikum had Brancheau in his mouth, he alternated holding on to her by her neck and shoulder and other parts her body. Some witness said he shook her "violently" on occasion. He only came to the surface to breath, avoiding the other trainers who were trying to get control of him. 

The effect the 23-foot-long killer whale had on the 5'7, 123 pound trainer was fully detailed in her autopsy report. The cause of death listed for Brancheau was drowning and traumatic injuries. The animal attack was deemed accidental. 

Per the report, Brancheau was badly bruised, cut, and scraped. Her left elbow and left knee were dislocated. She had multiple broken bones, including ribs, her jaw, and her neck. Her liver had been torn open and her scalp was ripped off. So was her left arm. According to the OCSO report, once SeaWorld workers finally were able to extract Brancheau from Tilikum's mouth, they had to go back and get her arm, her scalp and her whistle from the tank. 

It was a horrifying end to the life of a woman who was fulfilling her childhood dream of working as a SeaWorld trainer. According to Dawn's Foundation, she saw the Shamu show at SeaWorld when she was a child and knew she wanted to become a trainer and work closely with the marine mammals. Brancheau lived her dream for 15 years. She was survived by her husband, Scott.

The New York Times reported that Tilikum died of a bacterial infection on January 6, 2017.