The 24-second clip last month was jarring: Panicked skiers leapt from chairlifts at Sugarloaf ski resort, another dangled precariously from a chair and a man yelled from the ground over and over, “Get off! Get off!”

The state is still investigating what happened on the King Pine lift that abruptly sent chairs hurtling backward for 450 feet, injuring seven people in Carrabassett Valley on March 21.

What appears clear already: It wasn’t anything flagged in inspections.

Five months before that accident, inspectors told the resort to fix the phones and a hydraulic system on King Pine, neither so far factors in the accident, and records indicate the resort fixed both in advance of the ski season.

A review of five years’ worth of Maine ski lift inspection records, more than 3,000 pages obtained through a Freedom of Access Act request, found inspectors have flagged nearly 1,000 needed repairs and upgrades at mountains across Maine, some simple — replace this broken board, trim those trees — some jargon-laced and technical — “check automatic actuation of ‘Mouse Trap’ in reverse direction to ensure drop dog works.”

Almost without fail, operators at resorts throughout Maine were told to address something on every lift, every year, to get the go-ahead to run, a sign the inspection system works, according to a spokesman for the National Ski Areas Association.

Accident numbers nationally would seem to bear that out.

Of the hundreds of ski resorts across the country, only four had lift malfunctions that injured anyone in the past 10 years.

One of the four was at Sugarloaf, and against seemingly very low odds, it happened there again last month.

Both times on lifts that were next in line to be replaced by the resort.

Sugarloaf was the only ski area in the country with a serious lift malfunction all winter, according to Dave Byrd, NSAA’s director of risk and regulatory affairs.

Same resort, same manufacturer, but different lifts, different circumstances.

Sugarloaf spokesman Ethan Austin said nothing appears to link the two accidents, and the resort is doing everything possible to keep skiers safe.

According to an industry expert, with lift malfunctions, it’s often not just one issue that causes an accident but four or five — and inspections aren’t going to catch everything.

“You cannot prevent every incident — it’s impossible and it’s a fool’s game,” said Jim Fletcher, a Colorado engineer and member of the committee that sculpts national lift inspection standards. In Sugarloaf’s case, “the operator (and) the regulator need to look closely and dissect what’s causing those incidents and determine why lightning struck twice.” 

Before the snow flies

Maine employs two chairlift, or tramway, inspectors within the Department of Professional and Financial Regulation, according to spokesman Doug Dunbar, who declined to make inspectors available, citing the active investigation at Sugarloaf.

Another four people are licensed by the state as private tramway inspectors.

“Each has many years or decades of experience,” Dunbar said.

Every fall, owners of Maine’s 45 chairlifts send in a $70 fee and a license application that includes a preseason inspection report and a wire rope inspection to the Elevator & Tramway Safety Board for a certificate to operate that coming winter.

Records show most preseason inspections in Maine are done on behalf of Mountain Guard insurance, conducted by a private licensed inspector largely using the American National Standards Institute’s B77 rules for tramway inspection.

Fletcher, who sits on the ANSI B77 Committee, said standards call for “basically visual and audible inspections; they’re not tear-into-gear-box (inspections).”

“The inspector would be going through and listening,” he said. “Are the brakes functioning when I push this particular stop button? Is the lift slowing down properly? Do I see in the maintenance records that people are doing these deeper checks, and do I believe it? Those kind of things.”

It’s rare for a ski lift not to have an issue going into the winter.

Preseason inspections in Maine most frequently flagged between three and nine issues per lift.

State inspectors followed up by asking resorts to document when each item was addressed — or would be — before issuing a certificate.

Some states go beyond that, requiring mid-season, unannounced inspections. Maine doesn’t.

“Everyone involved in the process has a role in ensuring safety,” Dunbar said. “The owners of chairlifts have the primary responsibility. The insurance companies have an obvious interest. State and private inspectors have a responsibility to perform thorough reviews, and the state’s Elevator & Tramway Safety Program has a role in reviewing all reports, investigating concerns, licensing private inspectors (and) promulgating rules.”

Nationally, the industry has a solid track record, according to Byrd.

Between 1973 and 2014, out of 15.9 billion skier and snowboarder rides, 12 deaths and 62 injuries were blamed on lift malfunctions. That’s one death for every 1.3 billion rides.

According to NSAA, you’re much more likely to die on an elevator than a ski lift. (And you’re not very likely to die on an elevator.)

“At the end of the day, these incidents are extremely rare,” Byrd said. “If you think about it, riding a chairlift at a ski area — at Sugarloaf or elsewhere — is a remarkably safe mode of transportation, particularly given that it’s an open-air conveyance, rapidly going up a mountain, in cold weather.”

Replacing, repairing 

Sugarloaf employs 10 full-time lift mechanics year round, according to Austin.

The resort’s 14 traditional lifts are inspected daily. A maintenance checklist includes running the lift for at least one full revolution, checking fluid levels, visually inspecting chairs and having someone ride the full length to check for icing or anything out of the ordinary, Austin said.

There are also more detailed bi-weekly and monthly inspections.

Sugarloaf added a “director of lifts” position to oversee all that after the December 2010 deropement on Spillway East that injured eight people.

In an accident report issued six months later, the Elevator & Tramway Safety Board couldn’t trace that incident to a single cause; it was likely more than half a dozen factors including wind conditions and inconsistent training.

Spillway East was recertified by the state and operated for a few months of that ski season before it was pulled that next summer. It happened to be the next lift in line to be replaced, Austin said.

Now, King Pine is in the same position.

“The King Pine lift was the next lift we had been eyeing for replacement, but there wasn’t a firm timetable on when that would happen,” Austin said.

Early indications by the resort are that a broken drive shaft in a gear box and a design flaw in a braking system contributed to that latest accident.

In Spillway’s case, pre-accident, the resort had already decided it was too susceptible to wind holds — voluntary shutdowns by the resort due to wind concerns — and wanted to replace the double chairlift with a faster, heavier quad lift, he said.

“King Pine has (also) always been susceptible to wind holds,” Austin said. “By replacing it with a newer lift, and realigning it to be more protected by the tree line, we would, in theory, eliminate many of the wind-hold days that that lift experiences.”

Boyne Resorts, Sugarloaf’s Michigan-based owner, will soon decide whether to replace or overhaul it this summer.

Six lifts were taken down temporarily while they had parts replaced in preventive maintenance after last month’s accident; four of them, like Spillway and King Pine, were made by the now-defunct Borvig Ski Lifts. 

Another lift, Timberline, also a Borvig, has stayed offline since the accident awaiting a new drive shaft after lift mechanics “dove into the gear box,” found unusual wear and opted to replace it as a precaution, Austin said.

“It’s absolutely not a position we want to be in, or that any resort would want to be in,” he said. “We have fielded numerous questions from guests about lift safety since the accident, which I think is understandable. It’s important for us to reassure our guests that we take these incidents incredibly seriously, and have been working very hard to identify the cause so we can prevent anything like this from happening in the future.”

Austin said the resort experienced some reservation cancellations in the wake of the accident but also received vocal support.

“All we can do is be fully transparent with everything that we’re doing, everything that we’re finding and everything that we plan to do going forward,” he said.

How safe is safe?

Dunbar said the state’s investigation into the accident includes interviews, contacting parts manufacturers and inspecting the lift, all looking for a cause and anything that can be useful in preventing future accidents.

He declined to say, from the state’s perspective, whether two lift malfunctions in five years suggest any particular issues at Sugarloaf.

“With the King Pine investigation still ongoing, it isn’t possible or appropriate at this point to answer (that),” he said. “All ski areas in Maine receive attention and oversight. Sugarloaf has received a good deal of attention in recent years, and that will continue.”

That short clip of panicked Sugarloaf skiers has been viewed more than 200,000 times on YouTube in the past month. It drew comments such as, “Litterally (sic) my worst nightmare when riding the ski lift.”

Fletcher, on the ANSI B77 Committee, said it’s a matter of opinion how safe is considered safe. And to a large degree, it’s relative.

“In the automobile industry, we accept 30,000 or 40,000 deaths on our highways as safe right now,” he said. Looking at national accident data in his own research, “riding on a ski lift is safer by many, many times than riding any kind of public transportation. A bus. A train.”

It’s possible to read into the lift malfunction statistics — 12 deaths and, now, 69 injuries over 42 years — that ski areas have been pretty diligent, he said.

“I’ve done several investigations on accidents,” Fletcher said. “One thing you can be confident in saying, it’s very unusual to find a single item that you can say, ‘That’s what caused this.’ It’s normally there are two to four contributing and then the straw that broke the camel’s back.

“Nothing’s perfect,” he said. “When you find the glitches, you attack them.”

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From the inspection reports

An analysis of five years' worth of Maine ski lift inspection records indicates annual reports are thick with engineering studies, load analytics, grip tests, hard-to-understand industry jargon and some seemingly simple fixes.

A sample of issues flagged by inspectors and fixed by the ski areas:

* Black Mountain of Maine, Rumford, December 2010

"Novice chair: Provide sign stating downhill capacity at top station." 

* Saddleback, Rangeley, October 2012

"South Branch Quad: The activating arm on the carriage switch has been bent and will not catch on the carriage switch stops. This must be corrected."

* Big Rock Ski Area, Mars Hill, November 2011:

"Triple chair: Repair inoperable sound powered phones."

* Sunday River, Newry, October 2011

"Lift 10: Replace the damaged catch net on the downhill side of the unload ramp; Ensure all snowmaking tower guns are kept and prevented from coming within 5' of a passing chair."

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