Trainer killed by whale at SeaWorld was USC grad -, Myrtle Beach/Florence SC, Weather

Trainer killed by whale at SeaWorld was USC grad

SeaWorld trainer and USC grad Dawn Brancheau SeaWorld trainer and USC grad Dawn Brancheau
The pool where Brancheau was killed The pool where Brancheau was killed

ORLANDO, Fla. (WIS) — The SeaWorld trainer killed in front of horrified onlookers by a killer whale Wednesday was a University of South Carolina graduate, university officials confirm.

Veteran trainer Dawn Brancheau, 40, graduated from USC in 1991 with a degree in psychology, according to the school. One of Brancheau's sorority sisters called her "the kindest person in the world."

Brancheau was rubbing the whale named Tilikum after a noontime show Wednesday when the whale grabbed her and pulled her into the water, killing her.

A 20-year-old photo of Brancheau at USC shows her cradling a stuffed dolphin in a dorm room with an image of a killer whale on the wall, indications that Brancheau knew exactly why she was attending the University of South Carolina.

"She loves animals, she loves the water, she loves sunshine," said Brancheau's Alpha Delta Pi sorority sister Dana Baleno. "I think coming from the Chicago area and then coming to South Carolina, it's easy to love the nice beautiful weather we have here, so that's where she wanted to be and be around animals. And that was her passion."

The young woman, known then as Dawn Loverde, came to Carolina after growing up in Cedar Lake in northwest Indiana. Dana Baleno says her friend was petite, athletic and full of energy.

"She and I were on the dance team during our college years, and an avid exerciser," said Baleno. "Probably zero percent body fat. She was just phenomenal."

Loverde graduated in 1991 with degrees in psychology and animal behavior. Within two years, she'd joined the staff at SeaWorld in Orlando, working with real life dolphins and Orcas.

She always stayed in touch with the people around her, who remain stunned by her death.

"When you think of Dawn," Baleno struggled to say, "She... energetic, friendly."

"Like a friend of mine was telling me this morning, they had gone to SeaWorld and she was performing and there was thousands of people in the show and Dawn saw Lee from in the crowd and dove into the tank and swam over and said hi," continued Baleno. "Hadn't seen her in eight years, and she would hug and would kiss you. I think that was just her Italian background but she... was just the epitome of a friend."

SeaWorld Chief of Animal Training Chuck Tompkins said there was no sign of problems with the killer whale before the attack. He told the CBS "Early Show" on Thursday it was not true that the whale was misbehaving, as some witnesses have said.

Tompkins said the 12,000-pound whale had done really well during the show and the trainer was rewarding him by rubbing him. Some witnesses said they had heard the whale was not responding earlier to commands.

The incident occurred behind SeaWorld's main "Shamu" pool, a world-renowned venue for tourists. Experts say it was a scenario that nobody working with the animal could have predicted.

"If that's the case, that's about as drastic as I can imagine," said former killer whale trainer Joel Silverman. "Normally, if you have an aggressive animal and you're standing on stage, that's normally a safe place."

Satch Krantz, president of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, says the whale will not be put down.

"We don't do that, this animal at the end of the day was doing exactly what it was programmed to do over thousands of years and that is to attack and kill," said Krantz. "All of us that work with dangerous animals know that, we know it's a possibility."

SeaWorld Orlando says it plans to keep working with Tilikum the killer whale, even though this is not the first time he has attacked.  

In 1991, while living at a Canadian park, he attacked a trainer who had fallen into his tank and killed her.

Then in 1999, a man who was believed to have snuck into SeaWorld was found dead in Tilikum's pool. That death was ruled a drowning.

Brancheau was considered to be a very experienced trainer who would have taken all precautions and avoided putting herself in danger.

SeaWorld Orlando General Manager Dan Brown is among the many in shock.

"Never in the history of our parks have we experienced something like this," remarked Brown.

The section of SeaWorld where the attack occurred remains closed as investigators determine exactly what happened and if it could have been prevented.

Copyright 2010 WIS. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed. NBC and AP contributed to this report.

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