Skiers tumble from chairlift

CARRABASSETT VALLEY — Eight skiers were injured and dozens more left dangling in a freezing blow Tuesday when three chairs on a chairlift at Sugarloaf crashed about 30 feet to the ground when a cable derailed.

Trail map
Sugarloaf/USA map, Sun Journal illustration

This Sugarloaf trail map indicates the location of the chairlift accident Tuesday morning. The Spillway East Chairlift has two sides, one is longer than the other and goes higher up the mountain to an elevation of about 3,800 feet. That side, known as Spillway Longside or Spillway East was the lift that derailed.

Ski Lift Accident
Al Noyes/AP Photo

Skiers and chairs appear on the slope after a chairleft derailed on Sugarloaf.

Ann Bryant/Sun Journal

Sugarloaf ski resort officials updated the media Tuesday after a chairlift derailment that injured eight people. Pictured meeting with media representatives were Brad Larsen, vice president of marketing, Richard Wilkinson, vice president of mountain operations, and John Diller, operations manager.

Ann Bryant/Sun Journal

Sugarloaf ski resort officials provided information Tuesday after a chairlift derailment that sent eight people to Franklin Memorial Hospital. Pictured meeting with media representatives is Brad Larsen, vice president of marketing for Sugarloaf.

Rebecca London, one of the skiers who tumbled to the snow, told The Associated Press that her face hit a chairlift restraining bar, but that her goggles spared her from serious injury.

She credited new snow on the trail underneath the lift with a soft landing; the resort said it got 20 to 22 inches in Monday's storm.

Most of the skiers who fell appeared to be stunned but OK, she said.

Jay Marshall, a ski coach, was on a moving lift next to the broken one. There was a "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 of Carrabassett Valley.

Marshall, a lifelong skier, said it was too difficult to watch, so he looked away.

"It was terrifying," he said.

The Spillway East Chairlift derailed just after 10:30 a.m., according to officials at Sugarloaf, Maine's tallest ski mountain.

A derailment is when the cable carrying the chairs comes off the rolling wheels or the "sheave train," which carries the cable over the chairlift towers. The chairlift's safety system causes it to turn off when a derailment occurs.

The cause of the derailment was unknown but a lift manufacturer will begin an investigation with Sugarloaf officials Wednesday, said Brad Larsen, vice president of Sales and Marketing.

The Sugarloaf Ski Patrol evacuated those still suspended on the chairlift by using a system of ropes and belaying devices used by mountaineers. The rescue took just under two hours in temperatures that hovered around 9 degrees.

Traveling on the adjacent Spillway West lift at the time of incident, Jack McAlevey of Silvercreek, N.Y., said the lift appeared to sag with a gust of wind and then it stopped.

He said the lift was making clicking sounds and shaking. His cousin Jane Ouillette of Belfast said she had been on the lift Monday and also heard clicking and felt shaking.

Sugarloaf officials estimated the Spillway lift, comprising 162 chairs, carried up to 150 people on the lift at the time of the accident.

All other lifts were shut down to prevent other skiers and snowboarders from getting in the way of the rescue. With an estimated 5,000 skiers at the resort Tuesday during the holiday vacation, many were back on the slopes by noon.

Both state inspectors and outside engineers had been called in to help determine what went wrong on the 35-year-old Spillway East chairlift. The 4,000-foot lift, installed in 1975, undergoes a daily, weekly and monthly inspection in addition to a yearly inspection by Maine's Board of Elevator and Tramway Safety. It was inspected by state officials in October and is one the resort has slated for replacement as part of a 10-year improvement plan by parent company, Boyne Resorts of Michigan.

Larsen said the age of the lift was not unusual by national standards and across the country there are thousands of chairlifts that age still in use.

“It's a rare occurrence,” Larsen said of the incident Tuesday.

Spillway East chairlift's start-up had been was delayed Tuesday morning due to gusting winds of about 40 mph. Mountain officials monitor wind factors, including sustained speed, gusts, wind direction and air temperatures and decided wind conditions were acceptable and to open the lift about 9:55 a.m., said Richard Wilkinson, Sugarloaf's vice president of mountain operations.

"Sugarloaf Mountain and its employees are concerned for the people involved, additionally the resort would like to express gratitude to all the safety personnel that have responded to this incident," the release stated. "Sugarloaf Mountain is absolutely committed to the safety of its guests and employees."

Franklin County's Emergency Management Agency director also responded to the resort with the county's emergency communications vehicle. Several local fire departments were also alerted to the accident and placed on standby.

In November, the resort hosted a statewide training drill that involved a scenario where a chairlift derailed. Training on chairlift evacuations is an annual requirement for all National Ski Patrol members.

The last time Sugarloaf had a serious lift incident was in 1987 when two gondola cars detached from the haul cable and fell to the ground. Two people inside one of the cars that fell were injured, one seriously, according to a report in the Lewiston Daily Sun. Another 87 had to be rescued from the disabled gondola at the time.

That  gondola is no longer in use.

Regional Editor Scott Thistle contributed to this report.

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 's picture

All comments about SJ aside,

All comments about SJ aside, this could have turned out much worse! I'm glad no one was critically injured. I can't imagine how scary it must have been for everyone there. Kudos to all those involved in the rescue.


Absolutely agree

Forgive me, for harping on our time line with ArmyMom, she is angry about the commenting changes we are making so is critical even unethically critical and grossly inaccurate and unkind in her anonymous criticism -- especially of the Sun Journal -- but as somebody on the inside I wanted to keep the record straight for our readers.
All of our thoughts are with 3 people who remain hospitalized and we are hoping for a speedy recovery for them. The Sun Journal and it's staff will continue to follow this story and will update with new information as it becomes available. But as some of you pointed out above we are doing our best to verify our information and make sure we are accurate in what we report.
Thanks for reading and supporting us. My invitation to armymom, above, applies to any people in our online community my lines of communication are open for your feedback.


The story was updated from about 11:20 a.m. on Tuesday 12/28

The first version of this story went up live at 11:22 a.m. Tuesday Dec. 28.

The story was the first actual report out there, ahead of AP, ahead of television. They did have tweets and facebook posts about the same time as we did -- one-liners but when we posted our first tweet or FB post we had a report available. Throughout the day Tuesday until about 4 p.m. the story was updated with information, quotes, maps and photos as our staff was able to produce them or they became available. CNN had a reporter riding the chairlift that day, by sheer coincidence and that's why they got the story. CNN did not send anybody to report on this story directly to Sugarloaf, they were already there. Your criticism is misguided here and I will stand by our staff's response to this, we reported it first, got there as quickly as any of the other media in Maine -- barring Rob Atkinson, a former WGME staffer, who was the CNN correspondent riding the lift when this went down.
This version is the story that you see above we ran in the a.m. paper's on Wednesday morning. It went live at 12 a.m. Wednesday, 12-29, 2010.
If you have any questions about our coverage decisions or the timeliness of our reporting please don't hesitate to e-mail me directly or call me.
Scott Thistle
Regional Editor
mobile 207-713-6720

You are welcome for all the FREE news we provide to you online everyday. I'm glad you appreciate that because our staff is one of the hardest working news staffs in Maine and I daresay the country and I've worked at bigger and smaller papers.


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