Hundreds mourn trainer

Brancheau visitation packs Chicago high school chapel
2010-03-01T00:05:00Z Hundreds mourn trainerBy Susan Erler - susan.erler@nwi.com, (219) 933-4183 nwitimes.com

CHICAGO | Friends and family of Dawn Brancheau streamed steadily all afternoon into the chapel of a Southwest Side Catholic high school to pay respect to the veteran SeaWorld trainer.

Brancheau, 40, a 1987 Andrean High School graduate and former Cedar Lake resident, died Wednesday after a 6-ton bull orca dragged her underwater to her death at the end of a show in Orlando, Fla.

More than 1,200 people arrived in the first two hours alone of the visitation service Sunday at St. Rita of Cascia Shrine Chapel, 7740 Western Ave., an official with the Blake-Lamb Funeral Home of Oak Lawn said.

Many lingered afterward in aisles and pews to embrace one another, offer condolences and recall old times.

The chapel's red and blue stained glass windows filtered the already thin light of a gray winter day outside, a far cry from sunny Orlando, where Brancheau landed her dream job in 1994.

The youngest of six children, Brancheau had talked about training whales ever since a family trip to the park as a child.

To make the dream come true, she took a job at a park in New Jersey after college -- she earned a degree in psychology and biology from the University of South Carolina -- working with dolphins and sea lions, before being hired by SeaWorld.

Friends and co-workers last week remembered Brancheau as a bright woman who dedicated herself to the animals she thought of as her own children.

"Her personality and disposition was just a magnet," said Robin Friday, a former curator of animal training at SeaWorld who hired Brancheau. "I can never think of a negative experience or time that I personally had or any employee had."

Brancheau, then Dawn LoVerde, was a cheerleader, homecoming queen, class president and loyal alumna of Andrean High School, where she was remembered for her radiant personality.

"She was one of those people every time you saw her she had a smile on her face," Andrean alumni director Dave Pishkur said.

Brancheau's sister, Diane Gross, said the family considers her death an unfortunate accident and that the trainer wouldn't want anything done to the whale.

"It was her dream job since she was 9 years old," Gross said.

A funeral Mass for Brancheau is scheduled for 11 a.m. today at St. Rita, with interment to follow at Holy Sepulchre Cemetery in Alsip, Ill.

Many of Brancheau's family members live on Chicago's Southwest Side, a visitor to the chapel said Sunday.

Memorial services will be held in Orlando at a future date.

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