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Video: Family: Slain SeaWorld trainer ‘loved that whale’

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    >>> moment the family of the trainer killed by tilikum speaks out for the first time. first, nbc's kerry sanders has more from orlando. good morning.

    >> reporter: well, good morning. the federal government investigated the park here in the after math of dawn brancheau's death. osha fined seaworld $75,000, a fine that the seaworld officials are now disputing. meantime, park managers say every step of the way now they are doing everything they can to ensure the safety of the trainers. [ cheers and applause ]

    >> reporter: he's the show-stopper and he's back. tilikum , heavier than a city bus , launches, rolls and splashes the crowd. 12,000 pounds of excitement. but tilikum is also the same killer whale who last february bit down on trainer dawn brancheau's ponytail, pulled her into the tank and violently battered her like a whale might attack a seal in the wild. she's worked with the whales since 1994 known for her smile and willingness to chat up whoever wanted to talk about her love, killer whales . what was little discussed until her death was tilikum had killed before -- not once, but twice. in 1991 , killing another trainer and eight years later a trespasser.

    >> how many deaths are enough? if he kills four people, then are they going to do the right thing?

    >> reporter: seaworld says participating in shows is just a portion of tilikum 's day, but we feel it is an important component of his physical, social and mental enrichment. when osha completed its investigation agents concluded in part seaworld was responsible for exposing its employees to struck-by and drowning hazards when interacting with killer whales . while seaworld disputes the government findings, it has instituted a new policy and plans on significant mechanical changes. trainers are no longer in the water with the killer whales and soon the pool will include an emergency escape hatch. with the push of a button, a false bottom will shoot to the surface lifting whales and trainers to the surface and ideally, separating the trainers from danger. tilikum is not only back performing but he's also sea world 's most prolific breeder, responsible for more than a dozen captive births of orcas at seaworld . that's important to their bottom line . generally it's no longer allowed to capture the killer whales at sea. ann?

    >> kerry sanders , thanks so much. dawn brancheau's family now joins us. they include diane gross, thomas laverde, darlene clages and debra frogamini and also dawn's mother. it's been 14 months since the tragedy. here you are for the first time speaking out. why now? what is it that you want to say? darlene?

    >> you know, i think, ann, when you see pictures of our sister dawn, you see what a beautiful girl she is. her beauty came from the inside. that's what those of us who knew and loved her were so fortunate to have experienced. when dawn, you know, suffered through the tragic accident, by the next day our family had already decided to establish a foundation for her. it was just a natural reaction. she was such a good person. she made people feel so special. she took such good care of those around her, anyone she met, that we knew we had to do something good just to preserve her legacy. we didn't time this with tilly going back in the pool. you can see in the pictures when dawn is with the whale she loved that whale. she loved caring for them. she did the best she could to make them happy and to educate the public. and so we know she would want whatever is best for tilly. none of us here are marine animal experts. we don't know what's best. we're going to leave it up to seaworld and the trainers and her seaworld family to make the decisions on tilly's life. we obviously want her fellow trainers to be safe. we're confident that that's whatwhat seaworld wants and they will put in safety measures so her friends and fellow trainers are safe in the environment.

    >> i saw some of you watching the tape and reacting to some of the modifications -- the idea that the floor could rise up, there would be a button, the idea that trainers would not be able to get in the water but would be able to throw fish. it seemed there was approval of that. you were approving that there would be changes.

    >> whatever seaworld feels they have to do to make it safer for them, we have to go along with them. we have no say in this.

    >> she wanted to be a trainer from a very young age. she was just 9 years old?

    >> yes.

    >> she was living in northwest --

    >> indiana.

    >> indiana. it was a long way to go to do something so huge as that.

    >> that was her goal in life. she made it. that's why you dream big .

    >> that was probably a message you gave her.

    >> yes.

    >> that's one reason why this foundation is about helping young people dream big . how are you going to do this?

    >> we're going to inspire them by showing dawn's story, encouraging them that you may say something your friends don't necessarily think is a main stream career, somethinging to pu pursue but if you believe in it, you can push forward and achieve anything in life and use dawn's example not only in doing something you love to do but also to become a community servant and give back to the community in the way dawn did. her example was really thinking about others first and working locally, spending a lot of time with children. part of the reason she loved her job was the opportunity to educate children and the timing of why we are here also coincides with the fact that we are ready to talk about this and we have the capacity to implement programs and do things that mirror dawn's interests and the way she wanted to live her life and try to grow her ideas in a way to make her proud by completing the work, more than she could accomplish on her own.

    >> she wanted to make a difference and you being here talking about the foundation, you are continuing that effort. thank you so much. good luck to all of you. thanks for speaking to us. we're back after this. chili's $20

TODAY contributor
updated 4/4/2011 10:11:16 AM ET 2011-04-04T14:11:16

Before horrified onlookers at SeaWorld Orlando in February 2010, a dedicated veteran trainer — who had dreamed of working with killer whales since she was a little girl — was dragged to her death underwater by an orca who had killed twice before.

And yet, only 14 months later, her family holds no animosity toward Tilikum, the whale that killed trainer Dawn Brancheau, nor toward SeaWorld, which last week returned that whale to its roster of performing animals. Instead, finding hope in the tragedy, they have established the Dawn Brancheau Foundation to help and encourage children in need to follow their dreams, just as Brancheau did.

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Too risky?
“She loved that whale,” Brancheau's sister, Deborah Frogameni, told TODAY’s Ann Curry Monday in the family’s first interview since Brancheau’s death. “We know that she would want whatever’s best for Tilly. We don’t know what’s best for Tilly, so we’re going to leave that up to SeaWorld and her fellow trainers who were her SeaWorld family.”

Video: SeaWorld blamed in trainer’s death (on this page)

The incident sparked controversy and raised questions about whether it was too risky to allow trainers to get too close to massive predators like the 6-ton killer whale. That controversy grew when it was learned that Tilikum — not only one of SeaWorld’s star performers, but also among its most prodigious breeders — had killed twice before, drowning a trainer in 1991 and a trespasser eight years later.

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An investigation by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, the federal agency charged with overseeing workplace safety, found that SeaWorld had exposed its workers “to struck-by and drowning hazards interacting with killer whales,” and fined the park $75,000. But park administrators have disputed OSHA’s findings, and last week, they returned Tilikum to the pool.

Image: Dawn Brancheau, whale trainer at SeaWorld Orlando, performs on Friday, December 30, 2005
Julie Fletcher / Orlando Sentine
Dawn Brancheau, the whale trainer who was killed at SeaWorld Orlando in February 2010, performs there on Dec. 30, 2005.

“Participating in shows is just a portion of Tilikum’s day,” park officials said in a prepared statement. “But we feel it is an important component of his physical, social and mental enrichment.”

New precautions
Still, they have made changes. Trainers are no longer allowed to enter the pools with Tilikum or any of the park’s other killer whales. Plans are being developed to construct an emergency escape hatch in the pools just in case. In the event that a trainer is in trouble, the bottom of the pool would rise to the surface, stranding the whale, and hopefully separating the trainer from danger.

Image: Sea World trainer
Deborah Frogameni said her sister “would want whatever’s best for Tilly.”

Brancheau’s family says they support those changes and support SeaWorld’s decision to give Tilikum a chance to continue performing. “We obviously want her fellow trainers to be safe,” Frogameni told TODAY.

Related: Whale that killed trainer returns to SeaWorld show

It was not SeaWorld’s decision to return Tilikum to the public eye that prompted the family to break their silence about Brancheau’s death: “We didn’t time this with Tilly’s going back into the pool,” Frogameni said. Instead, the family was motivated to appear by their desire to honor Brancheau’s memory through the work of the foundation named for her, said her brother, Thomas LoVerde.

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The goal of the foundation, LoVerde said, is to encourage children to do what Brancheau had done from the time she decided at age 9 that she wanted to spend her life working with killer whales. “We’re going to inspire them by showing them Dawn’s story, encouraging them,” he said.

Video: Family: Slain SeaWorld trainer ‘loved that whale’ (on this page)

And if there’s any lesson in Brancheau’s life, he added, it’s that those goals can often lead to a good that goes beyond personal satisfaction — “to become a community servant and give back to the community in a way that Dawn did.”

“Her example was really thinking about others first ... spending a lot of time with children. Part of the reason she loved her job was because of the opportunity to educate children.”

For more information about the Dawn Brancheau Foundation, click here.

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