Wind, mechanical problems and human errors all likely contributed to the derailment of a fully loaded chairlift at the Sugarloaf Mountain Resort in December, according to a state report issued Friday.

The chief inspector for the Maine Elevator and Tramway Safety Board submitted the eight-page report more than five months after a section of the 35-year-old Spillway East lift derailed. Five loaded chairs plunged about 30 feet to the snow, sending eight skiers to hospitals. About 150 other skiers had to be evacuated from the disabled lift with ropes and pulleys.

“We were not able to determine the exact cause” of the accident, the report says. However, it cites training and maintenance problems in addition to gusty winds that caused the chairs to swing on the cable on the morning of Dec. 28.

Inadequate training of Sugarloaf’s lift mechanics, for example, led to an improper attempt to fix the lift just before it derailed, according to the report.

A mechanic climbed to the top of a tower and tried to adjust a turnbuckle, first loosening it and then tightening it, in an unsuccessful attempt to straighten a tilted cable wheel assembly, known as a sheave train.

With the sheave train tilted, the cable carrying chairs uphill was running toward the outside edge of the wheels.

As it turned out, the turnbuckle had been installed as a “stiffener” to hold the wheels in place and was not meant to be adjusted, according to the report. When the mechanics restarted the chairlift to unload passengers, the tilted sheave train dropped the cable, along with the chairs and the skiers.

Other mechanics had previously adjusted turnbuckles to try to straighten out sheave trains, according to the report. “The lift mechanics do not receive training in a structured or formalized manner,” it said.

The inspector also criticized Sugarloaf’s maintenance and record-keeping.

“Some maintenance had been performed and recorded but, in general, maintenance procedures were not specific,” the report said. “Since the maintenance manual was not available, there was no way to verify all maintenance items had been completed.”

The report does not include any recommendations for Sugarloaf or for the tramway board, although board members are expected to discuss the findings when they meet within the next few months, said Doug Dunbar, spokesman for the board.

The Maine Elevator and Tramway Safety Board issues annual licenses for every chairlift in the state and sets standards for operations and annual inspections, which are intended to ensure proper maintenance and record-keeping.

John Diller, general manager of Sugarloaf, issued a statement Friday saying the resort has adopted new procedures since the accident to standardize and formalize its training and record-keeping.

“Our first concern remains with those who were injured during the incident. We continue to wish them the very best in their recoveries and remain ready to assist in any way we can,” Diller said.

Sugarloaf is removing Spillway East to replace it with a larger, more reliable $3 million chairlift before the start of the next ski season. The lift had been slated for replacement before the accident as part of a 10-year upgrade plan.

Diller said the resort will replace older self-aligning sheave trains on two of its other chairlifts to prevent any similar failures.

“Two other lifts at Sugarloaf with sheave train assemblies similar to those that were in place on Spillway East will be retrofitted over the summer with fixed sheave train assemblies as a precautionary measure,” he said.

Many ski resorts in New England had already replaced older, self-aligning sheave trains because of maintenance issues, according to inspectors in other states.

Benjamin Gideon, a Lewiston-based attorney who represents three of the injured skiers, said late Friday that he had yet to read the complete accident report.

But, he said, the core findings indicate that Sugarloaf did not do enough to keep skiers safe.

“I think the findings (indicate) the resort failed to exercise reasonable care in the operation of the lift and its supervision and training of personnel responsible for operating the lift,” Gideon said.

He said one of his clients, who suffered stress fractures in his spine, is still undergoing physical therapy and medical evaluation. Once doctors know the long-term effects of the injury, Gideon said, he will “work with Sugarloaf and its insurers” to resolve financial claims.

The injured skier, Andy Tonge, a Maine native who lives in Baltimore, Md., said Friday that he is continuing to recover from the accident and has been working on rebuilding strength and endurance since he got out of a back brace in March.

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

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