CARRABASSETT VALLEY – At least eight skiers were injured and many more were stranded in frigid temperatures and high winds Tuesday when a 35-year-old chairlift at the Sugarloaf ski resort derailed.
A section of cable derailed about 10:30 a.m. and five two-passenger chairs fell, with at least three of them hitting the ground 30 feet below, Sugarloaf officials said.
All of the injured skiers were transported from the ski area by ambulance, said Brad Larsen, vice president of sales and marketing at Sugarloaf. They were taken to Franklin Memorial Hospital in Farmington with injuries that were believed to be non-life-threatening, he said.
Later Tuesday, Jerry Cayer, executive vice president of the hospital, said two of the injured people were sent to Maine Medical Center in Portland, one by LifeFlight helicopter and one by ambulance.
Of the remaining six, one was admitted to the hospital overnight and the other five were expected to be released. Cayer said five were adults and three were younger than 18, though not young children.
About 150 people were stranded when the 4,000-foot-long Spillway East chairlift stopped, and had to be lowered to the ground by ropes, Larsen said. Everyone was down from the lift by 12:30 p.m.
Sugarloaf 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, assisted by Sugarloaf’s staff and the chairlift’s manufacturer, Borvig.
Dave Millar, 42, of Freeport, was riding the lift above where it derailed, 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, Millar said.
After frantically trying and failing to reach his son by cell phone, he caught a glimpse of Robbie’s bright-yellow jacket as he was lowered from a chair. “Thank God we were all right,” Millar said.
Robbie’s chair was evacuated within 30 minutes because his friend shouted out that he was in distress, said Millar, who was in a chair near the top. Millar said he waited nearly two hours while being whipped by freezing gusts.
Winds that reached 50 mph forced the staff to delay the opening of three chairlifts near the peak early Tuesday, including Spillway East, which climbs more than 1,450 feet.
The staff decided to open Spillway East at 9:55 a.m. after a “significant” drop in the wind, said Richard Wilkinson, vice president of mountain operations. He declined to describe how much the 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 remained closed at the time of the derailment, Wilkinson said.
The resort had conducted a drill in early November for responding to a chairlift derailment, said Ethan Austin, a Sugarloaf spokesman. The staff and surrounding emergency responders trained for a mass evacuation of riders on a derailed lift.
Carrabassett Valley police and several ambulance services responded Tuesday, Austin said. He declined to comment on any liability issues related to the derailment, saying the resort’s legal personnel will evaluate that issue as necessary.
Austin said Spillway East is at the “top of the list” of lifts being looked at for replacement as part of a 10-year capital improvement plan. It was manufactured and installed by Borvig in 1975 and was modified in 1983, Sugarloaf reports indicate.
It passed its annual inspection by the state Board of Elevator and Tramway Safety in October, Larsen said. It also was inspected by Sugarloaf’s staff Tuesday morning as part of the resort’s daily safety checks.
An electric motor powers the 162-chair lift, which can send as many as 1,200 riders up the mountain each hour at 500 feet per minute, according to Sugarloaf reports. The chairs are 50 feet apart and weigh 140 pounds each.
The lift derailment instantly made national news. Robb Atkinson, a former news director for WGME-TV in Portland who now works for CNN, was among those stranded on the lift. He gave the national news network a live account of the rescue effort.
day’s end, the story had been reported by the other major news networks and even the British Broadcasting Corp.
On Tuesday afternoon, skiers and snowboarders in the base lodge were busy using their cellphones as people called and sent text messages from all over the country, asking if they had been on the lift that had broken down.
Doug Ide of Manchester said he had heard from a friend and family members 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 Spillway East right before it derailed, but there was a long line so he got on the lift next to it instead.
The Ides took the incident in stride; they 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.
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 lowered to the ground.
“I can’t say enough about how great Sugarloaf was,” she said.