A state inspection of Sugarloaf’s Spillway East chairlift in October showed that the 35-year-old lift needed a new outside stop switch and that some of the lift towers still needed numbers painted on them.
Sugarloaf addressed both of those requests in time for the opening of the ski season, according to state records, and the 161-chair lift subsequently received its 2011 operating license.
On Wednesday, state inspectors worked to determine why the chairlift derailed on Tuesday, injuring at least eight skiers.
Inspection records obtained from the Maine Board of Elevator and Tramway Safety — which regulates Maine’s approximately 100 ski lifts — provided few hints as to why the lift came off its track.
Chairlift inspections are done annually at ski areas throughout Maine, often in conjunction with the ski areas’ insurance companies, said Doug Dunbar, spokesman for the Department of Professional and Financial Regulation, which oversees the Board of Elevator and Tramway Safety.
An operating license is awarded after a chairlift passes three inspections: examinations of the cable and the chair grips, and a complete review of the lift’s operating systems.
“They look at the electrical systems, the hydraulic systems, the braking systems, the safety circuitry,” said Jim Quimby, mountain manager at Saddleback Maine in Rangeley. “They go through our maintenance program with a fine-tooth comb. It’s very, very thorough.”
He said the examination of the grip that affixes each chair to the cable involves a magnetic particle test to detect “internal cracks that you can’t see with a naked eye.”
Quimby said Saddleback’s lifts are inspected by engineers who work for the mountain’s insurance company and are licensed by the state as tramway and wire rope inspectors.
“You review the equipment and the procedures involved in maintaining the equipment,” said Selden Hannah, a Maine-licensed tramway inspector based in Rochester, N.H. “We do inspect against the state code and the national standard.”
There’s no federal oversight of ski lifts, and inspection rules and procedures vary from state to state, said Troy Hawks of the National Ski Areas Association.
Fatal lift accidents are rare. Lift accidents have killed 12 people since 1973, including four in Vail, Colo., in 1976 and four in Squaw Valley, Calif., in 1978, according to the Colorado-based organization.
Nine tramway inspectors are licensed to inspect chairlifts in Maine; five people are licensed to conduct wire rope inspections. The state’s chief inspector, who is leading the inspection at Sugarloaf, is John Burpee of Manchester.
Burpee has been the state’s chief elevator, tramway and boiler inspector since 1999.
Dunbar said Sugarloaf addressed all of the maintenance items that inspectors singled out before it was awarded its 2010 and 2011 licenses.
“The reports were thoroughly reviewed, as always, and a valid license was issued,” he wrote in an e-mail.
The Spillway East lift is 4,013 feet long, gains 1,454 feet of elevation and nearly reaches the summit of the 4,327-foot mountain. The resort has targeted the lift for replacement under a 10-year plan. Sugarloaf’s general manager said he wanted this to be its last winter, partly because of vulnerability to wind.
The inspection done in preparation for the 2010 license showed that Spillway East had brake pads that wore unevenly and a braking system that was “difficult to keep in proper adjustment.” The report also pointed out issues involving the emergency stop button and a pinched wire that conducts power to the electric motor fan.
The inspection for state certification is one of many chairlift examinations that are done throughout the ski season, Quimby said.
At Saddleback, he said, lift mechanics do checks each morning on each chair grip, the brakes and other systems. Even if those systems check out, weather conditions could keep a lift from opening.
“There’s nothing that can make you run a lift if it’s too windy,” Quimby said. “I know Sugarloaf takes wind very, very seriously, because we’re in the same wind patterns as they are.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.