(This story was originally published December 29, 2010)
CARRABASSETT VALLEY — At least eight people were injured and many more riders were left stranded in frigid temperatures Tuesday when a 35-year-old chairlift at Sugarloaf ski resort derailed in high winds.
A section of rope derailed at about 10:30 a.m. and sent five two-passenger chairs plummeting 30 feet to the slope below, with at least three of those chairs reaching the ground, Sugarloaf officials said.
All injured riders were transported off the mountain by ambulance, according to Brad Larsen, vice president of sales and marketing at Sugarloaf. They were taken to Franklin Memorial Hospital in Farmington with injuries that are believed to be non life-threatening, he said.
Jerry Cayer, executive vice president of the hospital, said late Tuesday that of the eight injured riders, two were taken to Maine Medical Center in Portland — one by LifeFlight helicopter and one by ambulance. Of the remaining six, one patient had been admitted to the hospital overnight and the other five were still being treated and were expected to be released.
He said five were adults and three were under the age of 18, though not young children.
“Most of the folks here are not local people,” Cayer said. “They came up for vacation.”
About 150 other riders stranded on the more than 4,000-foot-long chairlift had to be lowered to the ground by ropes, Larsen said. Everyone was evacuated from the lift by 12:30 p.m., he said.
Resort officials declined to comment on the cause of the derailment. An inspector from a state agency that regulates chairlifts is investigating, according to the resort, and will be assisted by Sugarloaf staff and the chairlift’s manufacturer, Borvig.
The lift had been listed as a priority for replacement, according to Ethan Austin, a Sugarloaf spokesman. Winds clocking in at 50 miles per hour forced staff to delay opening three chairlifts near the mountain’s peak earlier Tuesday, including the derailed lift, Spillway East, which reaches more than 1,450 feet, according to resort officials.
Dave Millar was a passenger on the lift above the derailment, and his 11-year-old son, Robbie, was several chairs behind with a family friend.
There was “a little jerk” before the lift came to a halt, followed shortly by the ski patrol passing below and shouting that there had been a derailment, said Millar, 42, of Freeport.
“I’m OK and he’s not; it was scary,” Millar said, referring to his first thoughts.
After frantically trying and failing to reach his son on a cell phone, he caught a glimpse of Robbie’s bright yellow jacket being lowered from a chair that had been blocked from view.
“Thank God we were alright,” Millar said.
The ski patrol evacuated Robbie’s chair within 30 minutes because the friend shouted out that he was in distress, according to Millar, who was in a chair near the top. Millar said he waited nearly two hours while being whipped by freezing wind gusts.
Safety and maintenance staff decided to open Spillway East at 9:55 a.m. due to a “significant” drop in the wind, said Richard Wilkinson, vice president of mountain operations. He declined to say how much winds dropped, saying the decision to open chairlifts is a judgment of the conditions based on safety standards set by the mountain.
The other two chairlifts were not open at the time of the derailment, Wilkinson said.
Spillway East passed its annual inspection by the State of Maine Board of Elevator and Tramway Safety in October, Larsen said. It was also inspected by Sugarloaf staff Tuesday morning as part of daily safety checks by the resort, he said.
The resort had also conducted an emergency training drill in early November for a response to a chairlift derailment, according to spokesman Austin. Sugarloaf staff and surrounding emergency responders trained for a mass evacuation of riders on a derailed lift, he said.
Carrabassett Valley police and several ambulance services responded Tuesday, according to Austin.
Austin declined to comment on any liability issues related to the derailment. The resort’s legal personnel will evaluate that issue as necessary, he said.
An electric motor powers the 162-chairlift, sending a capacity of 1,200 riders up the hill each hour at a speed of 500 feet per minute, according to Sugarloaf reports. The chairs are 50 feet apart and weigh 140 pounds, and the lift was modified in 1983, Sugarloaf reports indicate.
Austin declined to say if the Spillway East lift’s replacement had been scheduled. He said it was among many lifts being looked at for replacement as part of a 10-year capital improvement plan at the resort.
The replacement of Spillway East, however, was at the “top of the list,” Austin said.
Tuesday afternoon, skiers and snowboarders warming up in the base lodge were glued to their cellphones. They were baffled by the number of people calling and sending text messages from all over the country to see if they were on the lift that had broken down.
The lift derailment instantly made national news. An employee for CNN was among those stranded on the lift, and he provided the national news station with a live account of the rescue effort. By day’s end, the story had also been reported by the BBC.
Doug Ide, of Manchester, said he’d heard from a friend and family in other states.
“They all knew we were up here,” said Ide, who was skiing with his 12-year-old son Jacob and 9-year-old daughter Katie.
Jacob Ide said he came close to getting on the Spillway East lift right before it derailed, but there was long line, so he chose to get on the lift next to it instead.
Still, the Ides took the incident in stride; the family planned to continue skiing.
“As far as I’m concerned, they do a great job here, and it was a freak accident,” Doug Ide said.
Three friends from Sabattus, home for winter break from their freshman year in college, said they were just getting to the mountain when the lift broke.
“People told us just to leave,” said Devyn Pepin, 19. But the teens decided to snowboard anyway.
“It happens,” Pepin said about the accident. “It’s been a good day, other than that.”
For people such as Steve Kolenda, who’s been skiing at Sugarloaf for 25 years and spends 50 days each winter on the mountain, it was a difficult day.
“We love this place. It was a very emotional event for all of us,” he said.
Kolenda said a friend of his fell from the lift and was taken to the hospital, but had been released by the afternoon. “We’re hearing that kind of stuff, so we’re feeling better,” he said.
Those who saw the accident and the rescue effort stressed how quickly and professionally the staff worked to make sure everyone was safe.
Tricia Leach, who was on the lift with her 12-year-old daughter Meghan when it broke down, said they waited in the cold for about an hour before being evacuated to the ground.
“I can’t say enough about how great Sugarloaf was,” she said.