A YOUNG boy taken to SeaWorld by his mum as a birthday surprise ended up seeing an orca savagely kill a trainer in front of his eyes.
The experience left 10-year-old Bobby Connell needing therapy and suffering nightmares after witnessing the death of Dawn Brancheau.
Dawn was attacked by notorious killer whale Tilikum after the huge creature dragged her into the water by her hair and brutally battered her to death.
The 40-year-old died from drowning with her spinal cord severed and was scalped by the “psychotic” orca, which killed two other people during its 30 years in captivity.
Bobby and Suzanne watched Dawn performing with Tilikum just before she was killed, along with dad Todd, who took haunting final video of the SeaWorld trainer.
In a witness statement to investigators, she described seeing Dawn being dragged into the water by her ponytail by Tilikum, who weighed six tons and was 22ft long.
“My son began crying. I was trying to cover my son’s eyes for he was hysterical and screaming,” she told the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA).
Suzanne describes the “look of horror and fear” on Dawn’s face as she was being savagely attacked and after about 10 minutes she was “still in the water in the whale’s mouth”.
“My son was balling at that point and I also lost it,” she said.
The family had been watching the Lunch with Shamu event at the Florida park, referring to the stage name given by SeaWorld to multiple orcas.
On the day they visited in February 2010, the show was performed by Tilikum.
“I had booked this dinner a few months ago as a surprise for my son’s 10th birthday,” Suzanne told OSHA.
Suzanne also told a detective from Orange County Sheriff’s Office that “her ten-year-old son is now in therapy because he was traumatized by the experience”.
The family later filed a lawsuit SeaWorld on the basis of the trauma they alleged Bobby had suffered.
The lawsuit said Bobby “saw the look of horror and desperation on Dawn’s face as she was swimming for her life”.
Suzanne told CBS news about the effect on her son of seeing Dawn’s death.
“He had a hard time eating, he spent a lot of time alone, crying a lot, didn’t want to talk about things, angry a lot, nightmares,” she said.
“It was difficult for the whole family but he took it really hard.”
The lawsuit was, however, later dismissed when a judge ruled that it did now show how SeaWorld had harmed Bobby.
Another visitor who was in the audience described the terrifying moment she went to take a photo of an orca only to see a dead trainer in its mouth.
Dawn’s death led to major changes at the parks – and now trainers do not get in the tanks with the orcas.
Experts believe the Tilikum’s endless years imprisoned in water parks rendered him “psychotic” from psychological and physical trauma.
Tilikum was torn away from his family in waters off the coast of Iceland in 1983 and put into a concrete holding tank at a zoo near Reykjavík.
After months spent swimming in circles, the orca was shipped off to Sealand of the Pacific in 1984.
In 1991, Tilikum was still cooped up at the Sealand park in Canada when a young part-time worker slipped and plunged into the pool.
Onlookers watched on in terror as Tilikum and his two tankmates repeatedly dragged marine biology student Keltie Byrne underwater.
He ferociously dragged her around the pool and stopping her from surfacing as the 21-year-old was heard saying “I don’t want to die”.
Staff frantically tried to throw her a life ring but she was unable to reach it as the whales treated her like a “plaything”.
In a terrifying 10-minute ordeal, Keltie managed to reach the surface twice as her haunting screams echoed around the pool.
When she came up for the third time, she had tragically drowned.
Eight years later, Tilikum struck again.
On the morning of July 6, 1999, horrified trainers found the body of a 27-year-old man over Tilikum’s back.
Daniel Dukes had visited SeaWorld the day before and stayed after the park closed – somehow escaping the watching eyes of security.
In a statement SeaWorld said in a statement: “This is a retelling of a decades-old event that has no relevancy to the way our parks operate today, or have operated for many years.
“Our trainers have not been in the water with killer whales for many years and we have extensive protocols and training in place to protect the safety of our trainers, animals and guests.
“We are accredited, reviewed, audited and certified by both government agencies and independent animal welfare organisations to uphold the highest standards of animal care.
“Our teams of hundreds of animal experts, zoologists, dieticians, veterinarians, and trainers dedicate their lives to the animals they care for 24×7, 365 days a year.”