ORLANDO, Fla. — The top executive at SeaWorld Entertainment Inc.’s largest shareholder suggested that former SeaWorld Orlando trainer Dawn Brancheau should be blamed for her own death, claiming that the veteran animal trainer broke multiple safety rules before she was pulled into a tank and killed by a six-ton orca in February 2010.
SeaWorld “had one safety lapse — interestingly, with a situation where the person involved violated all the safety rules that we had,” Stephen Schwarzman, the chief executive officer of private-equity giant Blackstone Group, said in an interview Thursday on CNBC.
Blackstone said in a written statement that Schwarzman “misspoke” in response to a question about “Blackfish,” the controversial documentary that examines Brancheau’s death and killer-whale captivity. The firm said its chief executive had not anticipated a question about the film and had not been briefed on the subject.
“In answering a CNBC question (yesterday) morning on the film `Blackfish,’ Blackstone Chairman Stephen A. Schwarzman misspoke on the details of the death of SeaWorld killer whale trainer Dawn Brancheau,” Blackstone said in its statement. “Mr. Schwarzman was unaware of the precise circumstances of the incident, which occurred nearly four years ago, and his comments did not accurately reflect the facts of the accident or SeaWorld’s longstanding position on it. Dawn’s death remains a source of great sadness for her family, friends and colleagues and Blackstone regrets the error.”
The firm said Schwarzman does not plan to go back on CNBC to correct the record on air.
Schwarzman’s televised comments directly contradicted statements made by SeaWorld’s own management and animal-training staff, who have said that Brancheau followed all appropriate safety protocols and was not to blame in the tragedy, which sparked a still-ongoing, four-year-old legal battle with the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration.
The federal workplace-safety agency has recommended that SeaWorld never again be allowed to have its trainers perform in close, unprotected contact with killer whales.
Top SeaWorld officials have even testified under oath that Brancheau made no mistakes. During a legal hearing in the fall of 2011, Kelly Flaherty Clark, SeaWorld Orlando’s curator of animal training, called the accident entirely unpredictable and said Tilikum did not exhibit any signs — or “precursors” — that could have warned Brancheau that he was about to grab her.
“In my 25 years, I’ve reviewed one behavioral incident that did not show something that I would have done differently, that there weren’t behavioral cues,” Flaherty Clark testified. That one incident, she added, was Brancheau’s death.
The Brancheau tragedy is the subject of “Blackfish,” the controversial documentary that argues SeaWorld’s killer whales suffer in captivity and may become crazed or violent as a result. Though it failed to land an Academy Award nomination last week, the film has been seen by millions of viewers on CNN, in theaters and on Netflix Inc.’s streaming-video service, and it has generated a torrent of negative publicity for SeaWorld.
Schwarzman, who told CNBC that he has not seen “Blackfish,” also defended SeaWorld on the air.
“SeaWorld is a remarkable business. And people who go there love it,” he said.
Blackstone bought SeaWorld from Anheuser-Busch InBev in 2009 for approximately $2.5 billion, using about $1 billion of its own cash and financing the rest with corporate debt. Blackstone took SeaWorld public in April and sold off more of its shares in December — trimming its stake in the company to about 43 percent — raising close to $1 billion for itself through the two stock offerings. The firm has also made hundreds of millions of dollars more from SeaWorld through dividend payments, management fees, advisory fees and other charges.
The comments enraged SeaWorld critics, who say there has been a concerted effort by SeaWorld supporters to convince the public that Brancheau — and not SeaWorld — is ultimately at fault in the tragedy.
For instance, in the immediate aftermath of the incident, the Orange County Sheriff’s Office claimed Brancheau slipped and fell into the pool with Tilikum, before being contradicted by eyewitnesses and saying it had made a mistake. Then, a former top training executive at SeaWorld gave multiple print and television interviews in which he said Brancheau had put herself in too vulnerable of a position with Tilikum, who had been involved in two previous human deaths.
What’s more, an expert witness recruited by SeaWorld for its legal hearing with OSHA — a former company employee who has since been rehired as vice president of zoological operations for the SeaWorld-owned Busch Gardens Tampa Bay — claimed that Brancheau erred in letting her long ponytail float near Tilikum’s mouth, despite the testimony from SeaWorld’s own staff that she had made no mistakes.