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Colleagues Will Continue Working With Whale That Killed Trainer

Trainers will continue working with a killer whale that grabbed one of their colleagues and dragged her underwater, killing her, but SeaWorld said Thursday it is reviewing its procedures after the attack.

People lined up to get into the park a day after the whale named Tilikum killed veteran trainer Dawn Brancheau as a horrified audience watched. Tilikum had been involved in two previous deaths, including a Canadian trainer dragged under water by him and two others whales in 1991.

Killer whale shows are suspended indefinitely in Orlando and at the park's San Diego location.

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"We have every intention of continuing to interact with this animal, though the procedures for working with him will change," SeaWorld said in a post on its blog.

Chuck Tompkins, who is in charge of training at all SeaWorld parks, said Thursday that Tilikum will not be isolated from the Orlando location's seven other whales. Tilikum fathered some of them and will continue mating with others.

"We want him to continue to be part of that social group," Tompkins said.

Trainers will review safety procedures and change them as needed, but Tompkins said he doesn't expect the killer whale shows to be much different.

"We're going to make any changes we have to, to make sure this doesn't happen again," he said.

Brancheau, 40, was rubbing Tilikum from a poolside platform when the 22-foot, 12,000-pound creature reached up, grabbed her long braid in its mouth and dragged her underwater.

The Orange County Sheriff's Office said Thursday that trainers trying to help her could not get into the water because Tilikum was so aggressive. They had to coax him into a smaller pool and raise him out of the water on a platform before they could free her.

She likely died from multiple traumatic injuries and drowning, the medical examiner's office said.

Horrified visitors who had stuck around after a noontime show watched Tilikum charge through the pool with Brancheau in his jaws.

Tompkins said the whale was lying in front of Brancheau when her braid swung in front of him and he apparently grabbed onto it.

"We like to think we know 99.9 percent of the time what an animal is doing," he told The Associated Press on Thursday. "But this is one of those times we just don't know."

Kelly Vickery, 24, of Tallahassee was at the noon show Wednesday next to where the attack happened and said the whales seemed to be acting odd, swimming around the tank rapidly. Trainers said the whales "were having an off day, that they were being ornery," she said.

Tompkins disputed that, saying nothing seemed abnormal.

Vickery returned Thursday with her sons so they could see the areas of the park they had missed a day earlier, though she acknowledged being there felt "weird" a day after the tragedy.

"But it's an animal, and it's an accident," she said.

Audience member Eldon Skaggs, who saw the attack, said Brancheau's interaction with the whale appeared leisurely and informal at first. But then, the whale "pulled her under and started swimming around with her."

Another audience member, Victoria Biniak, told WKMG-TV the whale "took off really fast in the tank, and then he came back, shot up in the air, grabbed the trainer by the waist and started thrashing around, and one of her shoes flew off."

Because of his size and the previous deaths, trainers were not supposed to get into the water with Tilikum, and only about a dozen of the park's 29 trainers worked with him. Brancheau had more experience with the 30-year-old whale than most. Tompkins says the park believes he is the biggest male killer whale in captivity.

Tilikum was one of three orcas blamed for killing a trainer in 1991 after the woman lost her balance and fell in the pool at Sealand of the Pacific near Victoria, British Columbia.

A few months later, SeaWorld asked the U.S. National Marine Fisheries Service for permission to bring Tilikum to Orlando temporarily, according to agency documents obtained by The Associated Press. The agency is responsible for issuing permits to bring orcas and other marine animals into the U.S.

In a Jan. 8, 1992, letter, the agency said SeaWorld wanted to bring Tilikum to Orlando to provide medical treatment and care unavailable in Canada. The letter does not specify Tilikum's medical condition, nor does it mention his role in the deadly attack on the trainer.

Nancy Foster, director of the agency's office of protected resources, said in the letter to Brad Andrews, SeaWorld's vice president of zoological operations at the time, that "prudent and precautionary steps necessary for the health and welfare of Tilikum were not taken by Sealand or SeaWorld."

Despite that, the documents show SeaWorld Orlando got permission in October 1992 to permanently display Tilikum and the two other killer whales involved in the Canadian trainer's death. Both of the other whales have since died.

Tilikum was also involved in a 1999 death, when the body of a man who had sneaked by SeaWorld security was found draped over him. The man either jumped, fell or was pulled into the frigid water and died of hypothermia, though he was also bruised and scratched by Tilikum.

Brancheau's older sister, Diane Gross, said the trainer wouldn't want anything done to the whale.

"She loved the whales like her children, she loved all of them," said Gross, of Schererville, Ind. "They all had personalities, good days and bad days."

Celebrity zookeeper Jack Hanna said he has known Brancheau professionally for the last 10 years and also believes she would not want anything to happen to Tilikum.

Brancheau's passion for marine life began at age 9, Gross said, on a family trip to Sea World.

According to a profile in the Orlando Sentinel in 2006, she was one of SeaWorld Orlando's leading trainers. She also addressed the dangers of the job.

"You can't put yourself in the water unless you trust them and they trust you," Brancheau said.

Billy Hurley, chief animal officer at the Georgia Aquarium — the world's largest — said there are inherent dangers to working with orcas, just as there are with driving race cars or piloting jets.

"In the case of a killer whale, if they want your attention or if they're frustrated by something or if they're confused by something, there's only a few ways of handling that," he said. "If you're right near pool's edge and they decide they want a closer interaction during this, certainly they can grab you."

It was not the first attack on whale trainers at SeaWorld parks.

In November 2006, a trainer was bitten and held underwater several times by a killer whale during a show at SeaWorld's San Diego park. He escaped with a broken foot.

In 2004, another whale at the company's San Antonio park tried to hit one of the trainers and attempted to bite him.

Wednesday's attack was the second time in two months that an orca trainer was killed. On Dec. 24, 29-year-old Alexis Martinez Hernandez fell from a whale and crushed his ribcage at Loro Parque on the Spanish island of Tenerife.

Click here to read more about the autopsy results at MyFoxOrlando.com.