Skiers who were riding the Sugarloaf chairlift that dumped several skiers from as high as 30 feet Tuesday morning described the malfunction as a terrifying ordeal but praised the rescue workers who evacuated the lift.

Some described how the Spillway East chairlift stopped and started a few times in high winds and poor visibility. The chairs were shaking badly.

“Then there was a huge noise, a huge thud. The entire cable was shaking all the way,” said Srini Venkatraman, a business professor from Myrtle Beach, S.C., who is on a ski vacation.

That’s when he realized that, about 20 chairs behind him, the cable had derailed. He saw a commotion, and saw that a chair had fallen, but not much else.

“The wind was blowing so hard, I couldn’t really open my eyes,” he said. “I had to cover my neck and nose.”

Venkatraman, contacted eight hours after the ordeal, recalled being frightened.

“I was pretty much hanging on to the chair for dear life,” he said. “The chairs were bouncing up and down — literally bouncing up and down.”

The Ski Patrol arrived in a few minutes, and soon ran a pulley-operated sling over the cable to lower skiers to the ground. Venkatraman said his chair was about level with the treetops, maybe 35 feet off the ground.

Once on the ground, Venkatraman skied to the bottom. “The conditions were OK. It wasn’t bad at all,” he said.

Rebecca London, one of the skiers who fell to the snow from the lift, said her face hit a retaining bar on the lift but her goggles spared her from serious injury. She said new snow on the trail under the lift made for a soft landing; Sugarloaf said it got 20 to 22 inches in Monday’s storm.

“Thankfully, they didn’t groom it last night,” London said, “so the snow was all soft.”

Most of the skiers who fell appeared to be stunned but OK, she said, and the Ski Patrol was at the lift within minutes to treat the injured.

London, 20, of Carrabassett Valley, said she wasn’t hurt badly enough to go to a hospital.

Jack Michaud of Falmouth was riding on the Spillway West chair, alongside Spillway East, when he saw the broken chairlift lurch to a stop. As he continued up the mountain, he said, he passed a surreal scene as skiers sprawled in the snow amid the fallen chairs.

Then he saw his mother among those who had fallen.

Michaud skied down to where chairs and people littered the mountain face. His mother was OK, though another man was being helped by the Ski Patrol after being pinned beneath his chair.

Michaud said there was no indication that high winds played a role in the derailment, something his mother confirmed.

“What she saw was, there was a mechanic on top of the tower where the cable derailed, and he was working on the sheave train that the cable rides on,” Michaud said. “Some of the wheels were dropped down from the cable where he was working on it.”

The chair in which his mother was riding passed that tower and was one-third of the way to the next one when the chair dropped as the cable came off the tower.

“She had just enough time to think ‘Oh my God,’ and then she was on her face in the snow,” he said.

Michaud, a computer scientist who also works as a professional photographer, snapped several pictures with his wife’s cell phone. His pictures quickly circulated on the Internet.

In a post on the Facebook site for The Portland Press Herald’s sports section, Mark Fraleigh said he was about two-thirds of the way to the top of the lift line when problems began, and only about three chairs from the top when the lift stopped for the last time.

“We could see a chair at the very top of the lift sitting crooked and we knew something was up and then we were just sitting on the chair being eaten by freezing wind chill for roughly 15 minutes,” he said.

Jay Marshall of Carrabassett Valley, a ski coach, was hunkered down in the cold wind as he rode the chairlift next to Spillway East. He was moving and Spillway East was stopped.

After that lift restarted, there was a “loud snapping noise,” then some screams, he said.

“The next thing I know, it was bouncing up and down like a yo-yo,” said Marshall. He said it was too difficult to watch, so he looked away. “It was terrifying.”

After warming up in the lodge with hot coffee, Venkatraman, the visitor from South Carolina, made seven or eight more runs Tuesday and planned to be back on the slopes today.

“I’m on vacation, man. If things go bad, it goes bad,” he said.

 

Staff Writer Edward D. Murphy and The Associated Press contributed to this report.

 

Staff Writer David Hench can be contacted at 791-6327 or at:

dhench@pressherald.com