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Autopsy: SeaWorld trainer died from drowning, traumatic injuries

By the CNN Wire Staff
Animal trainer Dawn Brancheau was killed last month at SeaWorld in Orlando.
Animal trainer Dawn Brancheau was killed last month at SeaWorld in Orlando.
  • NEW: Whale's aggressive nature prevented rescuers from immediately reaching trainer
  • Autopsy: Dawn Brancheau suffered fractures to jawbone, ribs and a cervical vertebra
  • Brancheau was working with a whale at SeaWorld when whale pulled her underwater
  • Whale had been linked to two other deaths since 1991

Orlando, Florida (CNN) -- An autopsy report released Wednesday confirmed that a SeaWorld trainer killed after a 12,000-pound killer whale pulled her underwater died of drowning and traumatic injuries to her body, including her spine, ribs and head.

Dawn Brancheau, 40, was working with a whale named Tilikum in knee-deep water at SeaWorld in Orlando on February 24 when the animal grabbed her by the ponytail and pulled her underwater in front of shocked onlookers at the park's Shamu Stadium.

The autopsy report by the Orange County, Florida, medical examiner's office says Brancheau's spinal cord was severed, and she sustained fractures to her jawbone, ribs and to a cervical vertebra, in addition to the drowning.

Rescuers were not immediately able to reach Brancheau because of the "whale's aggressive nature," the county sheriff's office said. SeaWorld staff members recovered Brancheau after Tilikum was coaxed into a smaller pool and lifted out of the water by a large platform on the bottom of the smaller tank, authorities said.

Video shows Tilikum performing before attack

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A source at SeaWorld told CNN in February that after seizing her, the whale dove deep underwater. Brancheau's body was recovered about 40 minutes later.

Tilikum has been linked to two other deaths. He and two other whales were involved in the drowning of a trainer at a Victoria, British Columbia, marine park in 1991. The trainer fell into the whale tank at the Sea Land Marine Park Victoria and was dragged underwater as park visitors watched.

In 1999, Tilikum was blamed for the death of a 27-year-old man whose body was found floating in a tank at SeaWorld, the apparent victim of a whale's "horseplay," authorities said then. The Orange County Sheriff's Office said the man apparently hid in the park until after it closed, then climbed into the tank.

Because of Tilikum's history, as well as his size, trainers did not get into the water with him and specific procedures were in place for working with him, SeaWorld officials have said.

Two days after Brancheau's death, the head of SeaWorld said Tilikum "is a wonderful animal" and "will remain an active and contributing member of the team despite what happened."

"He's a very special animal that requires special handling," said Jim Achison, president of SeaWorld Parks & Entertainment. "Obviously, the procedures that we've had in place are something we're revisiting at this point."

Tilikum's size and weight -- 12,000 pounds, compared with 6,000 to 9,000 pounds for the facility's other killer whales -- were one reason separate procedures were in place for him at the Orlando facility.