Eyewitnesses to the whale attack at Orlando, Florida SeaWorld recounted the horror Wednesday when Tilikum, a 12,000-pound male orca whale, grabbed trainer Dawn Brancheau and pulled her into the water, where she drowned.
Michigan native Eldon Skaggs was eating his lunch in the area during the Dine With Shamu program, RadarOnline.com has learned, when tragedy reared its’ ugly head.
Brancheau "was laying on the platform, massaging the whale, petting it," Skaggs told Orlando TV affiliate WKMG. "All of a sudden, the whale latched on and took her under. He came up one time out of the water with her in his mouth -- that was the last we saw of her because they were running us out of there."
Another witness, Victoria Biniak, told the station that Tilikum "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."
Alarms stated ringing, guests started leaving, and the other trainers were "trying, all running, trying to save her," Skaggs said.
Brancheau, a graduate of University of South Carolina with degrees in psychology and animal behavior, was hired at the aquatic theme park in the mid-90s. The 40-year-old Merrillville, Indiana native was married with no kids, and the proud owner of two dogs, her mother Marion LoVerde told the NY Daily News.
"She was a fantastic girl," LoVerde said. "She was loved by all. Anyone who met her loved her. She had the best personality."
Brancheau's older sister, Diane Gross, told WGN the trainer "was the most loving, caring spiritual person. Anytime you had a problem, you could talk to Dawn. She had all of the advice and wonderful advice.
"Just unbelievable person," she said.