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Autopsy details SeaWorld whale attack

Dawn Brancheau, a SeaWorld Orlando trainer attacked by a killer whale, died of drowning and blunt-force trauma, an autopsy released today showed. “Even with immediate medical attention, it would be difficult for her to survive,” a forensic pathologist said.
/ Source: TODAY staff and wire

A SeaWorld Orlando trainer attacked by a killer whale died of drowning and blunt-force trauma to her head, neck and torso, an autopsy released today showed.

The report by the Medical Examiner's Office ruled Dawn Brancheau's official cause of death as drowning and traumatic injuries. Her death was ruled an accident, and toxicology tests found no drugs in her system.

The killer whale snatched the 40-year-old trainer from a poolside platform in its jaws and thrashed her around underwater, killing her in front of a horrified audience Feb. 24. It marked the third time the animal, named Tilikum, had been involved in a human death.

SeaWorld Orlando spokeswoman Becca Bides said the park did not have any comment on the autopsy. Dan Spitz, a forensic pathologist who reviewed the autopsy at NBC News’ request, said: “The whale essentially grabbed hold of the hair and the scalp, and just by the motion of the whale, caused the skin to tear away from the underlying bone.”

Members of the audience said Brancheau's interaction with the whale appeared leisurely and informal at first. But then the whale pulled her under, swinging her around in his mouth. An alarm sounded and staff rushed the audience out of the stadium as workers scrambled around with nets while others called authorities.

Spitz said that there was little that could have been done to save Brancheau’s life once the whale had her. “Had she been able to be pulled from the whale early on, she did sustain severe injuries, and even with fairly immediate medical attention, it would be difficult for her to survive.”

Brancheau suffered a fracture to part of her vertebra and lower jaw, according to the autopsy. The report also showed that she dislocated her left elbow and left knee and had lacerations on her right ear.

SeaWorld has removed Tilikum from its daily shows and ordered its trainers to keep their distance from the animal. He is twice as big as any other orca at the park. The park imposed the restrictions while it reviews its killer whale safety protocols. Marine biologist Philippe Cousteau told NBC News: “They are trained by cues like hand signals, so it’s possible that [Tilikum] misread the hand signals from the trainer.”

Tilikum continues to live in the park's seven-tank orca complex and learns new behaviors now that trainers don't get close to him.

Also today, a Florida judge extended a temporary order prohibiting the release of images from law enforcement's investigation and a video of Brancheau's death. Without the order, the material would become public under Florida law once the Orange County Sheriff's Office concludes its investigation.

An attorney for several media organizations said at a hearing last week that she didn't object to an extension of the injunction so that all sides could reach a resolution. Recent precedents have allowed news organizations to view images but not make copies for public dissemination.

The Associated Press contributed reporting to this story.