A state inspector’s report on the chairlift derailment at Sugarloaf last December points to problems with Maine’s safety inspections and regulatory oversight, according to an out-of-state expert and some skiers.

“It was not a very healthy lift maintenance program (by Sugarloaf) and not a very healthy inspection program by the state. I would say there is shared responsibility,” said Richard Penniman, a ski lift expert from Truckee, Calif., who read the report.

“The state certified all their lifts to run in the fall, so it’s (the inspector’s) fault just as much” as Sugarloaf’s, said Jack Michaud, a skier whose mother was injured in the Dec. 28 accident.

The accident report released earlier this month criticized Sugarloaf’s training and maintenance procedures. It did not address the fact that a state-licensed inspector certified the Spillway East chairlift before the start of the last ski season even though it later turned out that maintenance records were inadequate, the operator’s manual was missing and there were a number of mechanical problems.

State records show that the private inspector who checked out the lift last October did call for Sugarloaf to keep better records of training and maintenance. The inspection report also indicates that the resort was addressing those concerns.

Both Sugarloaf’s safety practices and the state’s oversight could be among the issues discussed by the Maine Elevator and Tramway Safety Board when it meets to review the accident report, officials said. That meeting is now expected to take place in late July.

“We feel that we have a good solid system here for providing public safety. We have a good track record of safety,” said Anne Head, commissioner of Maine’s Department of Professional and Financial Regulation, which includes the tramway board. “Is there room for improvement or changes? We’re always open” to those.

Sugarloaf Mountain Resort’s 35-year-old Spillway East chairlift derailed Dec. 28, dropping five chairs to the snow and sending eight skiers to hospitals.

A June 10 report by Maine’s chief elevator and tramway inspector did not point to any single cause for the derailment but cited a number of contributing factors, including wind and lack of formal maintenance training for mechanics. One mechanic improperly tried to fix a misaligned cable wheel assembly, or sheave train, just before the equipment gave way and dropped the skiers.

Sugarloaf is now in the process of replacing the Spillway East lift with a larger chairlift. Its general manager said this month that the resort also has adopted new training and maintenance procedures and is replacing similar sheave train assemblies in two other lifts.

The accident report did not recommend any enforcement action against Sugarloaf or the inspector or any changes in the state’s oversight process.

Maine has several private, state-licensed inspectors who are hired by each resort’s insurance company to conduct annual safety inspections. Each chairlift has to pass the annual inspection to get a state operating license.

The inspector who checked out the Spillway East lift last October, George Sawyer, noted two relatively minor issues — a missing drive shaft safety guard and trees and brush growing too close to an upper section of the lift. The inspection report does not mention a number of problems discovered after the accident, such as worn cable wheels or the fact that the sheave train on Tower 8 — the one that failed — was about three inches out of alignment with the other towers.

However, in notes regarding all lifts at the resort, Sawyer wrote that “training of all maintenance people shall be documented” and “detail(ed) written maintenance schedules shall be set up specific to each lift.” In both cases, handwritten notes on the inspection report indicate Sugarloaf was in the process of addressing the concerns.

Penniman, a former ski resort manager and safety expert who has been a paid witness in numerous court cases, said the Sugarloaf accident report includes unusually direct criticism of the ski area. But, he said, the report also clearly raises questions about the state’s oversight. Penniman has followed the Sugarloaf accident but is not involved in any potential legal claims, he said.

“There’s supposed to be a regular maintenance schedule recommended by the manufacturer. It seems to me the inspector would have asked for that,” Penniman said. “It just seems like a lot of things were missed and maintenance was not being done properly, and this is what you can expect. It doesn’t give you a lot of confidence in the system.”

Selden Hannah, a private lift inspector who works in Maine and is the chair of New Hampshire’s Tramway and Amusement Ride Safety Bureau, said it should come as no surprise that the five-month accident investigation found problems that were missed during routine annual inspections.

“Obviously, when you are looking hard at a specific lift and trying to find everything you can, you are going to find more,” he said. “You’re going to find things that nobody found before.”

In addition to the annual inspection, Spillway East was overdue for a comprehensive load test that is supposed to be done at least once every seven years. Spillway East was due for the test last year, but Maine’s chief tramway inspector had allowed Sugarloaf to delay the test one year. Other resorts have been given similar extensions.

It’s unknown whether or not the load test would have revealed whatever problem led to the collapse.

“A load test may have disclosed that, but there’s no guarantee that it would have,” Penniman said.

“A load test would never have been conducted under the circumstances present on the day of the accident,” said Head, the state commissioner. “It’s really almost impossible to answer that.”

Rick Tonge of Belgrade, a skier who suffered a back injury when the chair he was in plunged to the snow, said he is disappointed in Sugarloaf. “You shouldn’t need inspectors or anything, you should just be doing it right,” he said.

Other Sugarloaf skiers said the state shares the blame.

“If they were doing annual inspections, this shouldn’t have happened,” said Gary O’Brien of Farmington. “When they talk about grooves being worn in the (cable) wheels — that takes years to happen.”

The Sugarloaf accident report and the response also highlight contrasting regulatory approaches by different states. New Hampshire and Vermont, which have larger ski industries, have more rigorous oversight by full-time state inspectors.

Inspectors in neighboring states routinely review maintenance schedules and records for each lift, officials said. Vermont also offers voluntary state training for lift mechanics employed at the state’s resorts.

Maine’s Elevator and Tramway Safety Board, a nine-member panel appointed by the governor, meets about twice a year and will not take up the Sugarloaf accident report until late July, at the earliest.

New Hampshire’s Tramway and Amusement Ride Safety Bureau, meanwhile, already discussed the Sugarloaf accident at its monthly meeting in late May. The state’s chief inspector presented an inventory of older lifts around the state, although none had features identical to those at Sugarloaf.

“Making sure that we’re up to speed on maintenance and records is a part of this,” said Briggs Lockwood, chief of New Hampshire’s Tramway and Amusement Ride Safety Bureau.

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

[email protected]