ORLANDO — A killer whale that dragged a trainer to her death eluded SeaWorld workers who furiously unfurled nets while it swam pool to pool during the attack last week, according to witness statements released Monday.
After minutes of frenzied work to save Dawn Brancheau, the whale was corralled but refused to unclench its teeth and let go of her body, according to the investigative reports released by the Orange County Sheriff's Office.
"The whale would not let us have her," another trainer, Jodie Ann Tintle, told investigators.
Brancheau's co-workers describe the swiftness of the Wednesday attack and the furious response that came as alarms sounded. Employees who were at other pools, behind computers or emptying coolers of fish rushed to the scene.
Jan Topoleski, who monitors trainers' safety during shows, said he saw Brancheau lying on the deck face to face with the 22-foot, 12,000-pound whale right before the attack. He said the whale, named Tilikum, bit Brancheau's hair and pulled her into the pool. He sounded an alarm and grabbed safety equipment.
Susanne De Wit, a 33-year-old tourist from the Netherlands, told investigators her group had just walked to a window for a photo when she saw the attack.
"Suddenly I saw (the whale) grabbing the trainer … and pulling her down in the water," she said. "It was scary. He was very wild, with the trainer still in the whale's mouth, the whale's tail was very wild in the water."
Tanner Grogan, who scrambled to help other employees unfurl nets to isolate Tilikum, said the whale at one point let go for several seconds, but snatched Brancheau again by the foot before anyone could react. The plastic, weighted nets were dropped in the water to help direct the whale to a pool with a hydraulic lift.
It's not clear how long it took workers to trap the whale in a pool with the lift. One witness said it seemed like 10 minutes. Another said it could have been as long as 30 minutes.
Even after the whale was lifted out of the water, Brancheau could not be freed.
Numerous employees said the whale's jaw had to be pried open to remove Brancheau, 40. But her hand remained in the clench of Tilikum, and they had to pry his mouth open again.
Brancheau's funeral was Monday in Chicago.