January 4, 2011

Ski lift stays closed, inspection continues

Another victim is sent home from the hospital as he recovers from fractures in two vertebrae suffered in a fall when a chairlift derailed.

By Kelley Bouchard kbouchard@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

A damaged chairlift at Sugarloaf Mountain Resort will remain closed today as state inspectors continue investigating a cable derailment that sent eight skiers to hospitals earlier this week.

At least one of the skiers remained at Maine Medical Center in Portland on Thursday evening, being treated for injuries suffered when five chairs on the Spillway East lift fell 25 to 30 feet into unpacked snow.

Two inspectors from the Maine Elevator and Tramway Board were on the mountain again Thursday, examining lift equipment and interviewing resort employees and others who saw the accident, said Doug Dunbar, spokesman for the Maine Department of Professional and Financial Regulation.

"Their work is continuing," Dunbar said Thursday evening. "It's a comprehensive review."

Spillway East will remain closed today, according to Sugarloaf's website. The 35-year-old lift was properly licensed and inspected for the 2010-11 ski season, though resort officials said they planned to replace it as early as next summer.

Resort mechanics tried to realign the lift's cable before it derailed around 10:30 a.m. Tuesday and five chairs fell onto the ski slope, according to resort officials. A ski patroller had seen the cable running toward the outside of the rubber-lined wheels that supported the lift at Tower 8.

When the mechanics were unable to realign the cable, they started running the lift slowly in an attempt to off-load skiers, resort officials said. That's when the cable derailed. The mechanics immediately stopped the lift and locked it to prevent further movement.

Sugarloaf employees and emergency response workers spent the next two hours assisting skiers who were injured in the fall and removing skiers who were stranded on the lift, using a rope-and-pulley system. The lift had been carrying about 150 people.

The resort had delayed opening the lift for about two hours early Tuesday morning because of high winds in the wake of a snowstorm that dropped 22 inches on the mountain.

Among eight people injured in the accident, two were children. Five people were treated and released at Franklin Memorial Hospital in nearby Farmington and three were treated at Maine Medical Center.

One skier treated at Maine Med was Mike Katz, who was in satisfactory condition Thursday night, according to a hospital spokesman. Another was Andy Tonge, who was released from Maine Med on Thursday afternoon, said his father, Rick Tonge, 54, an investment adviser who lives in Belgrade.

The name and condition of the third skier who went to Maine Med haven't been released.

Andy Tonge, 25, suffered compression fractures in two vertebrae when his lift chair fell, said his father, who brought his son home Thursday to continue his recovery.

"He's doing well," Rick Tonge said of his son in a telephone interview Thursday night. "They just wanted to observe him for a few days. It doesn't require surgery."

The two men were riding the lift together when the cable derailed. Rick Tonge suffered a muscle injury to his back, he said.

His son is at home on holiday break from Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, where he's studying for a doctorate in mechanical engineering. Rick Tonge said it's unclear how long his son's recovery will take.

"Someone came up (from Baltimore) today with all his study materials," the father said, "but the preference is to get him back to school as soon as possible."

Rick Tonge said two state inspectors interviewed him about the accident in a telephone conference call Wednesday that included two Sugarloaf employees.

"I gave them a step-by-step (account) of what I saw, because I was watching it all as it happened," Tonge said. "The fact is that someone could have been killed."

Tonge told the Morning Sentinel on Wednesday that he and his son were on the last chair that passed Tower 8, about halfway up Spillway East, when the cable derailed.

He managed to roll out of the chair as it hit the snow, but his son remained in the chair, Tonge said. Ski patrollers soon attended to the two men.

State inspectors have noted that the accident caused some damage to the lift, resort officials said in a news release.

All mechanical components were left in place after the accident and were to be removed for further analysis by the inspectors, resort officials said.

Sugarloaf plans to replace the damaged parts with new equipment and go through safety testing and inspections before reopening the lift. Other lifts at Sugarloaf are operating.

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

kbouchard@pressherald.com

 

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