ORLANDO — Orange County Sheriff's Office investigators said SeaWorld Orlando trainer Dawn Brancheau died Wednesday from "multiple traumatic injuries and drowning" after a killer whale pulled her underwater by her long ponytail near the theme park's Shamu Stadium.
Investigators released a statement Thursday shortly after an official at SeaWorld Orlando said that the killer whale Tilikum is still being evaluated but that the theme park will keep the 12,000-pound dominant male animal.
Brancheau, 40, was "interacting" with the killer whale in knee-deep water "when the animal grabbed her by the hair, said to be in a long ponytail, and pulled her underwater," the Orange County Sheriff's Office said. "Rescuers were not able to immediately jump in and render assistance" to Brancheau because of Tilikum's "aggressive nature."
Tilikum pulled Brancheau, into the orca's tank about 2 p.m. Wednesday. The attack — the third human death linked to the killer whale since 1991 — made international news. Investigators said SeaWorld staffers recovered her after Tilikum "was coaxed into a smaller pool and lifted out of the water by a large scale/platform that lay on the bottom of the smaller tank," the statement said.
"While this incident remains the subject of an ongoing death investigation there are no signs of foul play. All evidence and witness statements indicate that the death was a tragic accident," the statement added.
An autopsy by the Orange-Osceola Medical Examiner's Office concluded Brancheau, a veteran trainer at the park, died of traumatic injuries. Details of her injuries were not released.
"We're going to make any changes we have to to make sure this doesn't happen again," Chuck Tompkins, chief of animal training at SeaWorld parks, said a day after Tilikum dragged Brancheau into its pool and thrashed the woman to death as audience members watched in horror.
The killer whale shows have been put on hold at SeaWorld's three parks in Orlando, San Antonio and San Diego. Tompkins said they will not resume until trainers understand what happened to Brancheau. He also said trainers will review safety procedures and change them as needed.
He would not give details on what might be changed, but he said he does not expect visitors to the theme park to see much difference in the killer whale shows, in which trainers swim with the animals, ride on their backs and jump off of them.
Tilikum was one of three orcas blamed for killing a trainer in 1991 after the woman lost her balance and fell into a pool at a Sealand theme park near Victoria, British Columbia.
A few months after the 1991 death in Canada, SeaWorld asked the National Marine Fisheries Service for permission to "import and temporarily house" Tilikum in Orlando, according to documents obtained by the Associated Press.
In a 1992 letter, the federal agency said SeaWorld wanted to move Tilikum to Orlando "for the purpose of providing medical treatment and care that is otherwise unavailable in Canada at this time."
The letter did not mention the whale's role in the deadly attack. But the agency criticized the theme parks, saying "prudent and precautionary steps necessary for the health and welfare of Tilikum were not taken by Sealand or SeaWorld."
Howard Garrett, co-founder and director of the Washington-based nonprofit Orca Network, has studied killer whales for nearly 30 years and said the creatures are not considered dangerous to humans, even though they are highly efficient predators in the wild.
"In their natural habitat, there is no record of any harm to a human anywhere," Garrett said.
He said Tilikum was probably agitated before Wednesday's attack, possibly from some kind of clash with the other whales.