Rick Tonge’s children grew up skiing at Sugarloaf Mountain. Now, he said, parents might think twice about putting young children on the resort’s chairlifts, in light of a state accident report that cites inadequate training and maintenance.

“I’ve been riding these lifts for 50 years and I put my little kids on these lifts. It’s like, wait a minute, you’re really not repairing these things properly?” said Tonge, who lives in Belgrade. “If I had little kids, I would sure question it now.”

Doug Ide of Manchester, on the other hand, said he will confidently take his 13- and 9-year-old children back to the mountain next winter.

“I certainly expect a greater level of vigilance now,” Ide said. “I think, in the future, we’ll see some improvements (in training and record-keeping) and some more monitoring by the responsible authorities.”

On Friday, the chief inspector for the Maine Elevator and Tramway Safety Board issued a report on the Dec. 28 chairlift derailment at Sugarloaf. Five chairs on the Spillway East lift fell about 30 feet to the snow, sending eight skiers to hospitals and leaving others with minor injuries.

The report cited no single cause for the accident. It listed a number of contributing factors, including inadequate training of mechanics – one of whom incorrectly tried to fix the lift just before it derailed.

“The lift mechanics do not receive training in a structured or formalized manner,” the report said.

Sugarloaf’s general manager, John Diller, said Friday that the resort has already reviewed and beefed up training and maintenance procedures. The mountain also is investing millions of dollars this summer on a new lift to replace Spillway East, and on new equipment for two other lifts.

Whether state regulators will take steps to increase oversight or penalize Sugarloaf remains to be seen. The Maine Elevator and Tramway Safety Board sets safety standards and issues licenses to the ski areas that operate lifts, and to the private inspectors who do annual safety checks on them.

The report did not recommend any actions. The nine-member tramway board is trying to set up a meeting this month or next to discuss the report.

It’s too soon to know what effect, if any, the findings will have on skiers. Many loyal “Sugarloafers” stood behind the mountain after the accident, and the resort ended the season with a significant increase in skier traffic, largely because heavy snowfall lengthened the season.

Rick Tonge said he always assumed that Sugarloaf was careful with maintenance and training, and it wasn’t.

Tonge and his adult son, Andy, were sitting in a chair on Spillway East, watching a mechanic try to fix a tilted set of cable wheels, moments before they plunged to the snow and then got dragged about 40 feet up the mountain as the lift kept running. Both went to hospitals with back injuries. Andy Tonge spent months in a back brace with fractured vertebrae.

“Before we got on the lift, there was this noise down at the bottom, this clanging noise,” Tonge said. “I hesitated as we were just about to get on it. But I said, ‘I’m not going to worry about this, Sugarloaf takes care of its lifts.’ And guess what? They weren’t maintaining them (properly).”

Tonge, who was called by a Sugarloaf staff member after the accident, said he was disappointed that the general manager didn’t contact his family or some of the other longtime Sugarloaf skiers who were on the lift. He and his son are now represented by a Lewiston-based attorney.

Tonge said he also was disappointed that Sugarloaf immediately blamed wind for the accident. The state report lists wind as a factor, but Tonge said he doesn’t believe it played a role.

Doug Ide was skiing with his children when Spillway East derailed. They weren’t on the lift.

He said the report’s findings were disappointing but didn’t surprise him. “There are humans involved here so I expected that there would be some human error involved,” he said.

Ide said he’s sure the resort will be extra careful in the future, and his entire family is already thinking ahead to next winter. “We’re very excited about the new lift,” he said.

Jack Michaud’s mother was in one of the chairs that fell. “She had a mild concussion and some pretty nasty looking bruises,” said Michaud, a Falmouth resident, who was riding a different lift when the accident occurred.

Michaud’s mother wasn’t taken to a hospital. She was treated later by her own doctor.

His parents contacted the resort’s general manager and were given ski passes as compensation for the accident. “Sugarloaf has been very fair to her,” Michaud said.

He said his whole family will be back at Sugarloaf next winter.

“They’d be fools if they did not become the safest ski area in the country,” he said. “I think this is probably what you would find if you looked under the covers at any ski resort. … Hopefully this is a wake-up call for everybody.”

 

Staff Writer John Richardson can be contacted at 791-6324 or at: [email protected]