CARRABASSETT VALLEY — Three out of four systems meant to keep a chairlift from rolling backward failed in an accident at Sugarloaf Ski Area last winter, according to a technical report released by state inspectors Wednesday.

The King Pine rollback on March 21 injured seven skiers as the chairlift hurtled backward an estimated 550 feet, according to the report. The state’s maximum rollback limit for a lift when it stops is 3 feet.

A bad bearing deep in a gearbox ultimately triggered a series of mechanical issues that led to the rollback, the report stated. 

Video shot on the slopes that day showed panicked skiers jumping off their chairs and a man yelling “Get off! Get off!” over and over.

It ultimately stopped after a lift operator manually deployed an emergency brake.

The technical report by John H. Burpee, chief elevator and tramway inspector within the Maine Department of Professional and Financial Regulation, says a thrust bearing “appears to have failed some time before the March incident but went unnoticed.”

That bad bearing in the sun gear kicked off issues with the bullwheel that ultimately separated the high- and low-speed gearboxes.

“As a result of this disengagement, two safety devices (the service brake and high speed rollback pinion) were unable to assist in stopping the lift or rollback,” according to the report.

Burpee wrote that ski resorts need to make sure maintenance procedures are sufficient. He also noted that the accident scene “was not maintained as it should have been . . . making it impossible to completely recreate or simulate the conditions that existed when the accident occurred.”

King Pine had passed a routine state inspection heading into last season.

Department of Professional and Financial Regulation spokesman Doug Dunbar said it’s hard to say whether the bad bearing issue should have been spotted by Sugarloaf sooner.

“The annual operational inspection of the lift by (a state) inspector would not necessarily have identified the thrust bearing and coupling issue — unless they presented themselves in some way,” he said. “It is believed that proper testing and inspecting had been regularly performed. It’s important to note, however, that the testing of those mechanisms each day and during operational inspections cannot entirely simulate what may occur in the event of an actual incident.”

Sugarloaf opened for its 65th season Nov. 21. Repairs on King Pine began in early November after parts for a new terminal arrived from Utah. It’s slated to reopen in late December.

“Aside from the chairs, towers, and haul rope, it will be an entirely new lift,” resort spokesman Ethan Austin said. “All of the drive components, safety components, braking components, electrical components, as well as the bullwheel and gear box will be brand new.”

Ski lift accidents are rare across the country. Between 2000 and 2014, only five lifts had malfunctions that injured anyone, according to the National Ski Areas Association. One of those five was a deropement in 2010 at Sugarloaf on Spillway East that injured eight people.

Sugarloaf was the only resort with a serious lift malfunction all of last winter, according to the association.

In a prepared statement, Sugarloaf President and General Manager Karl Strand said “all of its lifts see weekly, daily and monthly inspections and that no irregularities had been flagged on King Pine before the accident. Inspection techniques have been stepped up in the months since and the resort has “invested heavily in new safety technology, well beyond manufacturer and regulatory requirements.”

“Sugarloaf continues to work to improve its lift maintenance practices, and will continue to work with lift manufacturers, regulators and outside lift experts to ensure its lifts meet the highest possible standards for maintenance and safety,” Strand said. “The security and well-being of our guests is our first concern in everything we do, and we are thankful to the state inspector for helping us achieve a more complete understanding of the factors that contributed to last year’s accident.”

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Order up! Straight from Salt Lake City, Utah, the meats of the new Doppelmayr King Pine terminal arrived today. Pieces will begin moving up the hill and into place starting tomorrow.

Posted by Sugarloaf Mountain on Saturday, November 7, 2015

Sugarloaf King Pine Rollback Memo and Technical Report

Pictures King Pine Report

Coming Sunday

Sugarloaf is spending $1.5 million to make improvements after a chairlift malfunction allowed the King Pine lift to move in reverse last March, injuring seven skiers. On Sunday, a look at how the resort — responsible for two of three chairlift mechanical failures nationally that led to injuries in the past five years — is working to make sure it doesn’t happen again.

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