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Trainer dies after attack by killer whale

A female trainer was attacked and killed by a killer whale in front of dozens of horrified tourists yesterday. Eyewitness reports suggested the orca, which has been involved in two previous deaths, rose up to grab Dawn Brancheau by the waist and shook her violently before dragging her under water.

Victoria Biniak, a visitor to the SeaWorld centre in Orlando, Florida, said the 5.5 tonne animal, called Tilikum, pulled the woman into the water, contradicting official claims that she fell in."[The whale] shot up in the air, grabbed the trainer by the waist and started thrashing around, and one of her shoes flew off," she said. "He was thrashing her around pretty good. It was violent."

Eldon Skaggs said Brancheau was on a platform and was massaging the whale when it "pulled her under and started swimming around with her". Joao Sobrinho, another witness, was at an underwater viewing area and saw the whale gripping the trainer by her upper arm and tossing her about. "It was terrible," he said.

An investigation has been launched into what happened, with officials saying it appeared the trainer fell rather than was dragged in. Ms Brancheau, 40, had worked at the centre since 1994 and was an experienced member of staff.

In 1991 Tilikum was one of three orcas blamed for the death of a trainer who fell into their tank at Sealand of the Pacific in Victoria, British Columbia. In 1999 the scratched and bruised body of a man who had sneaked into Orlando SeaWorld was found draped over its back. The man had died of hypothermia.