CARRABASSETT VALLEY, Maine – Ski area employees working in blustery conditions were unable to realign a lift cable that was out of place and had restarted the lift at a slower speed to off-load riders when the cable derailed, sending skiers plummeting 25 to 30 feet, the Sugarloaf resort said Wednesday.
High winds had shut down the lift before Tuesday's accident, the worst in the resort's 60-year history, but it was cleared for operations and reopened about half an hour before cable jumped its track. Five chairs fell, eight people were sent to hospitals and dozens were stranded on the crippled lift for more than an hour.
The wind contributed to the accident, state investigators said Wednesday, but they're not ruling out other factors, and it's not clear whether wind or another cause initially pushed the cable out of place. The 35-year-old lift, which recently passed an inspection, was due to be replaced, possibly next summer, and was known to be vulnerable to wind long before its cable derailed.
Wind gusts of 40 to 50 mph were reported around Sugarloaf before the accident.
The resort worked to reassure skiers during the busy holiday week that Sugarloaf is committed to safety, and state inspectors vowed that their investigation would be thorough.
Steve Kolenda, who has skied 25 years at Sugarloaf, said skiers were impressed by the way the resort handled the emergency by shutting down the whole mountain to focus resources on the injured, and on rescuing skiers stuck on the lift. He also said it appeared that Sugarloaf was being transparent about events leading up to the mishap.
"Everyone feels good about the mountain," Kolenda said. "The place was jammed today."
The 35-year-old East Spillway lift remained out of commission Wednesday, with part of its cable and several chairs still on the snow where they fell, as the investigation began.
Skiers and snowboarders agreed that it had been windy on Tuesday, a day after a blizzard whipped most of the state before blowing out to sea. But many of them disagreed over whether the wind was above and beyond what's normally seen on Sugarloaf, the state's tallest ski mountain.
"Yeah, it was windy. It didn't keep me from coming up here," Chuck Tetreau, a snowboarder from North Yarmouth, said after making a run Wednesday.
In Maine, ski resort lifts are overseen by the Maine Board of Elevator and Tramway Safety, whose inspectors are investigating the accident. Annual inspections are the responsibility of the ski resorts, but the state licenses the inspectors.
Kolenda said he and his friends were looking forward to a replacement lift not because the old one was dangerous, but because it was slow.
"When we rode the lift, none of us were worried about safety. It was an old lift. It was like an old car. It'd break down occasionally. It was slow. But we didn't see it as a safety problem," said Kolenda, 57, of Monmouth, who has ridden the lift "thousands of times."
Nationwide, there's no federal oversight of ski lifts, and inspection rules and procedures vary from state to state, said Troy Hawks of the National Ski Areas Association.
Deadly lift accidents are relatively rare. Since 1973, lift accidents have killed 12 people, including one in 1976 that killed four people in Vail, Colo., and another in 1978 in Squaw Valley, Calif., that also killed four people, according to the Colorado-based organization.
In Maine, five of the injured skiers had been released from Franklin Memorial Hospital as of Wednesday, said hospital spokeswoman Jill Gray. Two patients were taken by ambulance and one by helicopter to Maine Medical Center in Portland, she said, but a spokeswoman there declined to comment.
The lift is 4,013 feet long, gains 1,454 feet of elevation and nearly reaches the summit of 4,327-foot Sugarloaf. The resort had targeted the lift for replacement under a 10-year plan. Sugarloaf's general manager publicly stated he wanted this to be its last winter, partly because of vulnerability to wind.
Before the accident Tuesday, the damaged lift and two others started the day on a "wind hold" when the resort opened at 9 a.m. But the winds diminished as the morning progressed, Austin said, and it was deemed safe to open the lift at 9:55 a.m.
At 10:23 a.m., a maintenance request was made for the tower in question, and two chair lift mechanics were dispatched to look at a cable that was out of alignment with wheels that keep it in place atop the lift tower, officials said.
Adjustments were made, and the lift was stopped and started several times in attempt to realign the cable before the mechanics decided to shut down the lift altogether, Austin said. They'd restarted the lift at a slow speed to allow skiers to disembark when the cable jumped out of wheels holding it in place.
Associated Press writers David Sharp and Clarke Canfield in Portland contributed to this report.
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