A 40-year-old female trainer was killed Wednesday in an apparent attack by a killer whale at Florida's SeaWorld, police and the park manager said.
There were conflicting reports about the incident, with authorities saying the woman had died after apparently falling into the whale's tank and an eyewitness claiming the animal leapt out of the water to grab her in its mouth.
"One of our most experienced animal trainers drowned in an incident with one of our killer whales this afternoon," said Dan Brown, general manager at the Orlando entertainment park.
"This is an extraordinarily difficult time for the SeaWorld parks," he added at a televised press conference.
Jim Solomons, from the Orange County Sheriff's office, said the trainer, who was not named, died after falling into the tank by accident.
"She apparently slipped or fell... and was fatally injured by one of the whales," he said. "This appears to be an accidental death, it's a tragic death."
The whale, named Tilikum or "friend" in the Native American language Chinook, is among the killer whales, dolphins and seals whose shows have made SeaWorld so popular.
But he has been involved in previous accidents, including the 1991 death of a part-time trainer at the Sealand of the Pacific facility in Canada, according to the Humane Society of the United States.
In 1999, after being shipped from Canada to the Orlando facility, he was blamed for the death of a man who had apparently stayed in the park after closing.
The Humane Society said the man appeared to have jumped into Tilikum's tank and was found dead the next morning, his naked body covered in scratches that suggested he had been dragged him around the bottom and sides of the tank.
An eyewitness told CNN that Tilikum had attacked the trainer as she showed him off to park visitors.
"He just took off like a bat out of you know what, took off really fast and came back around to the glass, jumped up, and grabbed the trainer by the waist and started shaking her violently," Victoria Biniak said.
"The sirens were going off. People were running out. I've never seen so many SeaWorld employees come out of the woodwork."
Though killer whales, also known as orcas, are a common attraction at entertainment parks, they are known for aggressive "play" and behavior in the wild, including batting seals or dolphins back and forth, apparently for fun.
They are huge creatures -- Tilikum weighs in at least 11,000 pounds -- and "are among the most curious of all whales, with a great tendency to 'play' and to manipulate objects," according to SeaWorld's website.