(This story was originally published December 30, 2010)
CARRABASSETT VALLEY – In his countless hours on ski lifts over the years, Rick Tonge of Belgrade had devised a plan for what he would do if the cable ever broke.
But when he heard a loud snap Tuesday morning while riding Sugarloaf’s Spillway East chairlift, the reality proved to be very different from what he had envisioned.
“I thought about this happening many times. You know, ‘What do you do?’” Tonge said in an interview Wednesday. “It didn’t matter, because there wasn’t any time.”
Tonge, 54, was on the last chair to pass a tower halfway up Spillway East before a derailment there sent five chairs falling to the slope below, injuring at least eight people. Riding with Tonge was his 25-year-old son, Andy.
“As we passed (the tower), we heard some sort of snap, and the next thing we knew we were three feet from the ground,” Tonge said.
He managed to roll out of the chair as it hit the snow, but Andy couldn’t get out in time and remained in the chair, Tonge said.
After realizing that he had injured his back and couldn’t move, Tonge said, he lay in the snow, not knowing if his son was all right. As ski patrollers began tending to the injured people, other skiers passed messages back and forth between Tonge and his son, who had also hurt his back. The Ski Patrol soon attended to the men.
Fifty-four members of Sugarloaf’s Ski Patrol and other emergency staff responded to the accident about 10:30 a.m., said Ethan Austin, a spokesman for Sugarloaf. They treated injured skiers and used ropes to evacuate about 150 other people who were stranded on the lift.
Tonge said he doesn’t remember details of the emergency response, but he learned later that his son’s injury was more serious than his own. He said they were both taken by ambulance to Franklin Memorial Hospital in Farmington.
According to Tonge, who was X-rayed and released later Tuesday, Andy was taken by ambulance to Maine Medical Center in Portland, where he remained Wednesday night, in satisfactory condition. Tonge said he hoped his son would be released today.
Initially, seven people, including two children, were taken to Franklin Memorial Hospital and one person was taken by helicopter to Maine Medical Center in Portland. Five of the people treated at Franklin have been released, and two were taken to Maine Med by ambulance.
Sugarloaf and police officials wouldn’t release the names of the injured people. Hospital officials declined to describe their injuries.
People who suffered injuries, and several who did not, were taken down the mountain by toboggan or in a snow-grooming tractor, Sugarloaf officials said.
Austin said the emergency staff trains for such evacuations multiple times each year, joined occasionally by members of the Carrabassett Valley Fire Department who specialize in mountain scenarios. The fire department staff responded Tuesday, he said.
In November, a training exercise for a mass evacuation of a chairlift involved the mountain’s staff and other emergency responders, Austin said. It was the first exercise of its kind on the mountain.
On Wednesday, Sugarloaf officials declined a request to speak with emergency responders who were involved with the rescue effort.
Tonge said he was contacted by state and Sugarloaf officials Wednesday to describe his experience. He said they discussed only “my recollection of how things unfolded.”