Chairlift dumps passengers at Maine resort
CARRABASSETT VALLEY, Maine — All of that snow from the recent blizzard in the northeast of the United States proved to be a blessing for at least one of the skiers who tumbled from a chair lift at a Maine ski resort.
Rebecca London, who was aboard the crippled lift, credited fresh, ungroomed snow for softening her landing Tuesday; the resort said it got 20 to 22 inches (50 to 55 centimetres) of snow a day earlier.
“The snow was all soft,” said London, of Carrabassett Valley, whose goggles also protected her face when it hit the chair lift’s retaining bar during the 30-foot (9-meter) fall.
At least eight others — including three children — were taken to hospitals after the double-chair lift at Sugarloaf derailed during a busy vacation week at the popular resort north of Portland. Dozens of skiers remained on the crippled lift for more than an hour until the ski patrol could get them down.
An investigation will determine whether the accident was wind-related or mechanical, officials said. The ski resort was being buffeted by winds gusting up to 40 mph a day after the blizzard blew through. A witness said he saw a Sugarloaf employee working on the lift before the derailment.
The resort said the lift, which recently passed an inspection, was due to be replaced — possibly as early as this coming summer — partly because of vulnerability to wind. Five chairs fell onto a ski trail below, Sugarloaf spokesman Ethan Austin said.
Jay Marshall, who was on a lift that was parallel to the one that broke, said his lift was moving but the other was not. There was a “loud snapping noise” after the lift restarted, he said, then some screams.
“The next thing I know, it was bouncing up and down like a yo-yo,” said Marshall. He said it was too difficult to watch, so he looked away.
“It was terrifying,” he said.
Marshall said there was a worker atop the tower where the lift’s cable derailed, but noted that could have been a coincidence. It’s not uncommon to see workers on the lift towers, he said.
All told, there were about 150 skiers on the lift at the time, according to Sugarloaf, operated by Boyne Falls, Michigan-based Boyne Resorts. Sugarloaf workers used a pulley-like system to lower skiers to safety.
Eight people were taken to Franklin Memorial Hospital in Farmington, said Gerald Cayer, the hospital’s executive vice president. Two of them were transferred to Maine Medical Center in Portland, Cayer said.
The failed East Spillway lift is 4,013 feet (1,223 meters) long, gains 1,454 feet (443 meters) of elevation and nearly reaches the summit of 4,327-foot (1,319-meter) Sugarloaf, the state’s second-tallest mountain. It went into service in 1975 and was modified in 1983, according to Sugarloaf officials.
That lift and two others started the day on a “wind hold” because of the blustery weather, but Sugarloaf officials later deemed it safe to operate before the accident at 10:30 a.m., Austin said. Guidelines for “wind holds” include wind speed and other factors, he said.
Betsy Twombly of Falmouth said the resort had notified season pass holders like herself that the lift would be the first to be replaced under a 10-year improvement plan. Austin told reporters it was on a list of those to be upgraded, but declined to say when that was due to happen.
A web site dedicated to Sugarloaf’s master plan said the first priority for lifts was to replace the twin east and west spillway lifts with a larger quad lift, partly because of vulnerability to the wind. The Bangor Daily News previously quoted John Diller, Sugarloaf’s general manager, as saying he hoped this would be the last winter for the lift.
“A fixed-grip quad will provide faster and more reliable transportation for skiers and, due to its additional weight, will be significantly less prone to wind holds than the current lift,” the web site said.
Twombly witnessed the aftermath of the accident and praised the quick help from Sugarloaf workers, who she said worked calmly and efficiently to get people down from the lift and off the mountain.
“I expected to see hysteria, but there was none,” she said.
Sugarloaf assured visitors that its lifts are inspected each day.
“We haven’t had a derailment of this magnitude in the 60 years Sugarloaf has been in operation,” said Richard Wilkinson, vice president for mountain operations.
The lift was properly licensed and inspected for 2010, said Doug Dunbar of Maine Department of Professional and Financial Regulation. Ski resort chair lifts fall under the jurisdiction of the department’s Board of Elevator and Tramway Safety, and two inspectors were dispatched to Sugarloaf, Dunbar said.