The state Wednesday called for enhanced maintenance and upgrades on the state’s ski lifts, particularly older ones, in its final report on the chairlift accident at Sugarloaf ski area that injured several skiers last season.

On the morning of March 21, 2015, a mechanical breakdown on the King Pine chairlift caused the loaded lift to slide backward for about 10 chair lengths, or 550 feet, according to a technical report issued by John H. Burpee, chief boiler/elevator and tramway inspector for the state of Maine.

“We think Sugarloaf and the other ski areas in the State of Maine have made positive progress enhancing their maintenance program,” Burpee said in the report. “The scrutiny of any incident highlights to the many involved that more could have been done to meet expectations. Continuous progress and improvements need to be made to existing maintenance programs.”

Sugarloaf Ski Area is located in Carrabasset Valley. The King Pine chair lift was operating with a full load of passengers when it experienced a mechanical failure and then the rollback, Burpee said. The report states that neither a backstop device nor the automatic application of the emergency brake worked correctly.

According to a preliminary report issued shortly after the incident, the drive shaft between the motor and the bullwheel that hauls the lift’s steel cable broke in such a way that two braking systems failed and an emergency braking system also failed to engage.

The chairlift was stopped by another emergency brake but not before frightened skiers jumped from chairs as the lift rolled backwards. Seven skiers were injured but none of the injuries was life-threatening.

Some skiers and snowboarders were injured when the lift struck them near the lift terminal. Several suffered injuries when they apparently jumped about 10 feet from chairs to the ground. The more seriously injured were taken by ambulance to Franklin Memorial Hospital in Farmington, and one was transferred to Central Maine Medical Center in Lewiston.

Karl Strand, Sugarloaf’s president and general manager, released a statement Wednesday reacting to the state report.

“As it has been since the day of the accident, our first concern remains with those who were injured or otherwise affected by the King Pine rollback,” Strand said.

Strand said he agrees with Burpee that ski areas should incorporate maintenance and inspections of gear sets and drive systems into lift maintenance programs, but he also pointed out that King Pine had been inspected by the state and an independent lift engineer in 2014, just prior to the start of the ski season.

Strand said Sugarloaf’s engineers found that the emergency brake on King Pine did deploy automatically, but he added, “we do not dispute the findings of the Inspector and recognize that definitive proof of the brake’s behavior during the accident is lacking. Ultimately, the accident was the result of a confluence of mechanical failures, not attributable to any one single factor.”

CASCADING SERIES OF FAILURES

The state report – issued eight months after the accident – describes a cascading series of mechanical failures, some that happened before the accident but went unnoticed.

“Ski lift owners/operators need to work with manufacturers to determine what system updates/upgrades may be available for their lifts that would increase lift safety and reliability,” the report’s conclusion says. “Older lift systems may not be as reliable as new systems designed to fulfill the same function. … This lift did not employ the best available methods for detecting abnormal lift conditions.”

The report also said the accident scene was not maintained as it should have been, which has hampered the investigation.

“While there is a need to make the scene safe, some of the lift’s mechanical components were adjusted and/or removed prior to the investigation making it impossible to completely re-create or simulate the conditions that existed when the accident occurred.”

Strand reacted to that part of the report, saying that “In the aftermath of the rollback, the first priority of Sugarloaf’s personnel was to ensure that the lift would not move further and risk additional injury to guests.”

Certain components had to be moved from their original positions while riders were evacuated, Strand said.

Sugarloaf is spending $800,000 to install a new terminal at the bottom of the King Pine chairlift. Sugarloaf said this month that the new lift will feature a redesigned gear box and the latest anti-rollback technology. The only pieces to remain from the old lift are its existing towers and chairs.

The new lift should begin operating sometime next month.

David Hench can be contacted at 791-6327 or at:

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