Chairlift was being shut down when it failed

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CARRABASSETT VALLEY — 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, a Sugarloaf resort said Wednesday.

High winds had shut down the lift in the hours 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 about 150 people were stranded on the crippled lift for more than an hour.

Wind was determined to be a contributing factor in the derailment, a state official said Wednesday.

“The inspectors believe wind played a contributing role in the incident but they continue to evaluate all potential factors,” according to a statement from Doug Dunbar of the Maine Department of Professional and Financial Regulation, which licenses lifts.

The 35-year-old Spillway East Chairlift derailed just after 10:30 a.m. Tuesday.

Five adults and two youths were taken to Franklin Memorial Hospital in Farmington, a hospital representative said Wednesday. Four of them were treated and released Tuesday; one was released Wednesday; and two were transferred to Maine Medical Center in Portland late Tuesday. The eighth person was taken directly from the ambulance at FMH to a medical helicopter and flown to MMC on Tuesday.

Sugarloaf spokesman Ethan Austin said the resort would not release names or specifics about the injured.

Meanwhile, two state inspectors from the Board of Elevator and Tramway Safety returned to the lift Wednesday to gather information, Dunbar said. They determined there was some damage to the lift parts during the derailment.

“All mechanical components remained in place after the incident and those components are currently being removed and will be analyzed further,” according to a statement by Austin. “The resort plans to replace the damaged parts with new equipment and go through safety testing and inspections prior to reopening the lift to the public.”

The lift had been inspected by the state in October and 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.

Austin noted the main concerns now are the welfare of those injured and the safety of Sugarloaf guests.

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.

Gov. John E. Baldacci recognized the work of responders, saying in a statement, “I want to thank the first responders for their skills and proficiency. It was clear during a full-scale exercise this November that the safety personnel at Sugarloaf, the local police and fire departments, the Franklin County Emergency Management Agency and their state partners at the Maine Emergency Management Agency were well-prepared for an event like this.”

Their skills and proficiency demonstrated Tuesday, he said, “have helped to protect the public, and to make sure the evacuation of the people stuck on the ski lift went as quickly and safely as possible.”

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Accident timeline

CARRABASSETT VALLEY — Sugarloaf ski resort officials released the following details  Wednesday about the chairlift derailment that occurred Tuesday morning.

Sugarloaf experienced winds immediately after the major snowstorm, which dropped 22 inches of snow on the resort Monday. As a result, several lifts, including the Spillway East chairlift, were placed on hold at the start of operations Tuesday.

Winds diminished as the morning progressed, and Spillway East was evaluated by the ski patrol director of Sugarloaf Mountain and a chairlift mechanic. That evaluation included towers, top and bottom terminals, and the completion of Sugarloaf’s standard safety checks. The chairlift was opened to the public at 9:55 a.m.

At 10:23 a.m., the Lift Operations Department received a maintenance request for Tower 8 from a Sugarloaf ski patroller. Two chairlift mechanics were dispatched at that time. The chairlift cable was observed to be running toward the outside of the rubber liners of the sheave train (the wheels on which the cable is supported) on Tower 8.

At 10:30 a.m., one lift mechanic arrived at Tower 8 and another arrived at the bottom terminal of Spillway East. Working in tandem, the mechanic at the bottom terminal of Spillway East communicated with the mechanic on Tower 8 while he made an adjustment to the sheave train per Sugarloaf’s operating and maintenance procedures. The lift was slowly started to enable the cable to settle back into the correct location on the sheaves.

The realignment effort was unsuccessful. The mechanics repeated the procedure, again unsuccessfully. The mechanic on Tower 8 determined that it would be inappropriate to run the chair at normal operating speed and the lift should be closed.

Mechanics started the lift at a slow operating speed to begin off-loading the guests who were on the lift.

Shortly after starting the lift at reduced speed, the lift cable deroped from Tower 8, leaving the cable suspended between Tower 9 and Tower 7. Lacking the support of the sheave wheels on Tower 8, five chairs struck the snow below.

When the deropement occurred, the mechanic on Tower 8 immediately notified the mechanic at the bottom terminal of Spillway East. The lift was immediately stopped and locked out from further movement.

Ski patrol was immediately notified and lift evacuation procedures began at 10:45 a.m. At 12:14 p.m. all guests had been evacuated from the lift. Sugarloaf ski patrol estimates that 150 people were evacuated.

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