(This story was originally published December 30, 2010)

 

CARRABASSETT VALLEY – Mechanics at the Sugarloaf Mountain Resort were trying to realign a chairlift cable Tuesday when it derailed and dropped five chairs carrying skiers into the snow 25 to 30 feet below, resort officials said Wednesday.

The announcement came as state inspectors ended their first full day investigating the accident, which sent eight people to hospitals and stranded dozens of skiers on the Spillway East lift for as long as an hour and 44 minutes.

“Our two primary concerns right now are for the rapid recovery of those injured yesterday and the safety of all Sugarloaf guests,” Ethan Austin, the resort’s spokesman, said Wednesday. “We’re incredibly grateful for the help offered by local and state agencies.”

High winds contributed to the accident, according to inspectors from the Maine Board of Elevator and Tramway Safety, who weren’t ruling out other reasons for the failure of the 35-year-old lift.

Just before the accident, 50-mph wind gusts were reported around Sugarloaf, following a storm that dumped 22 inches of snow on the mountain Sunday and Monday.

The lift was properly licensed and inspected for the 2010-11 ski season, said Doug Dunbar, spokesman for the Maine Department of Professional and Financial Regulation.

Inspectors are expected to issue a report when their investigation is complete.

On Wednesday, hordes of skiers and snowboarders were on the mountain, unfazed by the accident on the aging lift, which is at the top of Sugarloaf’s list for planned improvements, possibly next summer.

“It’s definitely tragic for the families involved, but skiing is a risky sport,” said Jeremy Smith, 20, who lives in Cumberland. “People who are not up on the mountain don’t understand. Skiers are so dedicated to the sport and their mountain.”

The accident happened shortly after 10:30 a.m. Tuesday. Spillway East had been running for about a half-hour, according to a news release from Sugarloaf, which delayed starting the lift for two hours because of the wind.

Around 10:20 a.m., a ski patroller reported that on Tower 8, the lift’s cable was running toward the outside of the rubber-lined wheels that support the cable. Two mechanics responded and tried to align the cable, stopping and starting the lift at least twice.

When their efforts failed, one of the mechanics “determined that it would be inappropriate to run the chair at normal operating speed and the lift should be closed,” according to the news release. “Mechanics started the lift at a slow operating speed to begin off-loading the guests who were on the lift.”

That’s when the cable derailed. The mechanics immediately stopped the lift and locked it to prevent further movement, according to the news release.

Sugarloaf employees and emergency response workers began helping the injured. Around 10:45 a.m., they started removing skiers from the lift using ropes. The evacuation was finished by 12:14 p.m. About 54 people assisted in the evacuation and about 150 were taken off the lift.

Initially, seven people, including two children, were taken to Franklin Memorial Hospital in Farmington and one person was taken by helicopter to Maine Medical Center in Portland. Five of the people treated at Franklin were released, and two were taken to Maine Med by ambulance.

Sugarloaf and police officials wouldn’t release the names of the injured people.

The lift remained out of commission Wednesday, with part of its cable and chairs still on the snow where they fell as state inspectors and Sugarloaf workers investigated.

Many skiers and snowboarders said they would have been on Spillway East on Wednesday if it had been running because it reaches some of the mountain’s best terrain.

“Oh yeah, I’d be right back on it,” said James Andersen, 23, of Putnam, N.Y.

Ben Irish, 13, of Scarborough and his uncle, Erik Irish of North Yarmouth, peered at the fallen chairs without lasting concern.

“It’s a little scary, but I’ve skied here all my life,” Erik Irish said. “I’ve ridden that chairlift many times. I think the mountain will get it fixed, open it back up and have it safe to ride.”

The accident has drawn international attention in part because Robb Atkinson, senior director of sales and affiliate relations for CNN, was on the lift when it derailed and reported the event on live television.

Austin, Sugarloaf’s spokesman, sorted through dozens of voice messages Wednesday from media around the world.

“The world has gotten word: Canada, England, Japan. I’ve never had my phone ring like this,” he said. 

The Associated Press contributed to this report. 

Staff Writer Deirdre Fleming can be contacted at 791-6452 or at:

dfleming@pressherald.com 

Staff Writer Kelley Bouchard can be contacted 791-6328 or at:

kbouchard@pressherald.com