Note: this is a Press Herald archive story from February 6, 2011. For coverage of the March 21, 2015 chairlift malfunction at Sugarloaf, follow this link.

GARDINER – The Maine Board of Elevator and Tramway Safety usually works in obscurity, its small staff housed in a former elementary school.

It typically spends about 90 percent of its time quietly making sure the state’s elevators are safe to ride in.

The collapse of a chairlift at Sugarloaf Mountain Resort on Dec. 28 changed all that, at least for a while.

While the national media focus on the accident quickly evaporated, the board’s ongoing investigation is being closely watched by ski area operators and regulators in other states.

“Everybody wants to know exactly what happened,” said Robert McLeod, Vermont’s chief tramway inspector.

The probe also is being watched closely by some of the injured skiers and their attorney.

“I think this incident is going to make people step back and wonder if our regulatory environment is working properly here,” said Benjamin Gideon, a Lewiston-based lawyer representing five of the skiers injured at Sugarloaf.

“When you’re sitting on that lift and you’re looking up at that little clip that holds the lift to the cable, (you say to yourself), ‘They wouldn’t have inspected and approved it for use if it wasn’t safe.’ “

Whether the Sugarloaf accident leads to regulatory reforms may largely depend on what caused it. Eight skiers were injured when five of the chairs plunged to the snow, and about 150 others had to be evacuated using ropes and pulleys.

The board’s chief inspector and a second inspector have been leading the daily investigation and mechanical testing of the lift. It is still unknown when the chair — Spillway East — will reopen and when the board will issue its findings.

The investigation is clearly a big undertaking for the Tramway Board, as the agency is commonly known. It has five employees — a chief inspector, two other inspectors, an administrator and a board clerk.

It is overseen by a nine-member policy board made up of people who represent the public and interested groups, such as elevator and ski lift businesses. The governor appoints members to the board, which currently has three vacant seats. It meets about twice a year, depending on how much business there is to discuss.

The staff’s time is divided between elevators and ski lifts, or “tramways.” And, because Maine has 4,600 elevators and just 94 ski lifts, elevators usually get most of the attention. Some of the staff also work with the Boiler and Pressure Vessels licensing program.

The Tramway Board oversees ski lifts much as it does elevators. It sets the safety rules and monitors compliance, relying on ski areas’ insurance companies and private inspectors to do most of the actual inspecting and testing.

“There are three separate players, and they have to understand they are equally important and have responsibility for safety,” said Anne Head, director of the Department’s Office of Licensing and Registration.

The Tramway Board is one of 40 licensing programs within the department. The cost of running the board — $471,229 in fiscal year 2010 — is covered by fees from elevator and ski lift owners, according to the state.

Board staff leads accident investigations, such as the one at Sugarloaf. They also take part in some inspections, such as when a new ski lift is installed. But usually, the insurance companies hire private experts who have been licensed by the state to do the work. As long as the inspectors verify that any significant problems are fixed — and they always do — the state issues an annual license to operate each lift.

The state also requires a second inspection during the ski season, but it doesn’t expect to get a report unless there is a problem.

The private inspectors also oversee comprehensive load tests that each chairlift is required to undergo every seven years. That seven-year deadline had been extended by the Tramway Board in the case of Sugarloaf’s Spillway East chair, the lift that derailed in December. The extension called for the ski area to do a load test sometime in 2011.

The accident happened seven years and three weeks after its last load test.

The other key partner is the ski resort itself. Ski areas conduct daily inspections, both from the ground and from the chairs, before they open for the day, for example.

Maine’s regulatory system clearly relies on the financial interests of ski areas and their insurance companies to keep skiers safe on their rides up the mountains.

State tramway boards, in fact, were first created by members of the ski industry to help them ensure safety and reassure the public after a number of serious, and sometimes fatal, lift accidents decades ago.

Some ski states, such as Vermont, are known for strict regulation and aggressive oversight. It has a team of state-employed inspectors who ride and inspect each lift as many as four times each winter.

States with smaller ski industries, such as Minnesota, have no tramway board or state regulation, relying on insurance companies to enforce industry safety standards.

Maine is considered to be somewhere in the middle.

State officials say the state’s oversight is more aggressive now than it used to be.

In 1996, oversight of elevators and chairlifts was transferred from the Maine Department of Labor to the Maine Department of Professional and Financial Regulation. The move led to more clearly defined standards and a larger and more experienced staff, said Doug Dunbar, a spokesman for the Department of Professional and Financial Regulation.

“It’s a much better program than it was years ago,” he said.

In fact, the board could not locate any accident records dating from before 1996. It was able to find some records of accidents since 1996, but only after tapping into the memory of inspectors and searching files. There are so few accidents in Maine that the board doesn’t keep a dedicated list or file, Dunbar said.

The ongoing probe at Sugarloaf is likely the most closely watched ski accident investigation Maine’s board has ever conducted. But it’s not the first time the board has been in the public spotlight or faced scrutiny of the state’s safety standards.

The death of an 8-year-old boy in August 2001 put elevator safety — and the board — under a spotlight. The boy was crushed between the outer and inner gates of an elevator in Bethel. The gap was one of eight flaws that had recently been overlooked by a private state-licensed inspector.

“In the early to mid-1990s, there wasn’t really a whole lot of regulation” of elevators in Maine, said Jeremy Polk, a Tramway Board member who owns Hermon-based Maine Accessibility Corp., which puts elevators and stair-lifts into private homes.

He was not on the board in 2001, but remembers how the state stepped up elevator safety standards and oversight.

“When that accident happened, a lot of stuff changed and they really cracked down,” he said.

Maynard Russell, a Maine-licensed lift inspector from Greenville who also does inspections in other states, said he is among those waiting to find out what caused the accident. But, he said, he has confidence in the state’s oversight and in the people who work in the ski industry.

“A lot of people enjoy skiing and a lot of people enjoy going to Sugarloaf, and they should continue to and with confidence,” he said. “There’s a lot of people behind the scenes that do a lot of things, and the Tram Board and inspections is just part of it.”

Staff Writer John Richardson can be contacted at 791-6324 or at:

[email protected]

MaineToday Media State House Writer Tom Bell can be contacted at 699-6261 or at:

[email protected]