THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING

Workers had just declared lift unsafe, resort says

Employees worked yesterday on the Spillway East lift, which was closed following Tuesday’s accident. Workers were in the process of unloading the lift’s remaining riders when it derailed, dropping eight people 25 feet to the snow below, the resort said. Employees worked yesterday on the Spillway East lift, which was closed following Tuesday’s accident. Workers were in the process of unloading the lift’s remaining riders when it derailed, dropping eight people 25 feet to the snow below, the resort said. (Pat Wellenbach/Associated Press)
By L. Finch
Globe Correspondent / December 30, 2010

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A chairlift that derailed at a Maine ski resort, injuring eight people who dropped 25 feet to the snow, was being serviced for a routine mechanical problem minutes before the accident, resort officials said yesterday.

Two maintenance workers at Sugarloaf Mountain ski resort had stopped the Spillway East chairlift Tuesday morning to try to realign a cable at Sugarloaf Mountain ski resort, after it was seen leaning to the outside of its track, said Ethan Austin, a spokesman for the Carrabassett Valley resort.

The problem is fairly common among lifts, he said. But after failing to fix the problem, the workers deemed the lift unsafe to continue ferrying skiers up the mountain at a normal speed and started the lift slowly in order to unload the remaining riders, he said.

Shortly afterward, the cable skipped out of its track about 10:30 a.m., sending five chairs slamming to the snow-covered ground, while the rest remained suspended in the air, Austin said.

State inspectors said yesterday that gusty winds probably contributed to the derailment, as well. Officials are still trying to determine what caused the cable to jump out, but winds, with gusts of up to 45 miles per hour reported in the area at the time, were probably a “contributing factor,’’ said Doug Dunbar, a spokesman for the state Department of Professional and Financial Regulation, which oversees the licensing of chairlifts.

The incident, which some witnesses described as harrowing, left about 150 people stranded on the lift, some for as long as two hours while temperatures hovered in the 20s and rescuers worked to get them down, officials said.

The injured skiers were treated at Franklin Memorial Hospital in Farmington, Maine, according to the resort. Three were later transported to Maine Medical Center in Portland. Information on their condition was not immediately available.

Because of the strong winds Tuesday, resort officials had shut down the 35-year-old lift the morning of the accident, but later deemed the lift safe to operate, Austin said. Two other chairlifts at the resort were shut down Tuesday because of the winds, he said.

The failed Spillway East chairlift was manufactured in 1975 and modified in 1983; Austin said it is not unusual for a ski lift of that age to still be used. The machinery is inspected daily and receives weekly, monthly, and yearly maintenance and testing, as well as an annual inspection by the Maine Board of Elevator and Tramway Safety, he said.

The board had certified the lift through Dec. 31, 2010, said Dunbar.

The resort intended to replace the lift sometime in the future as part of planned upgrades and replacements around the mountain, Austin said. But no date had been set, he said.

Mary Lou Warn, 46, of Winslow, Maine — who was on a separate lift, adjacent to one of the chairs that fell — told the Globe Tuesday that part of the lift that collapsed had been stopped before the accident and that a maintenance person was working on one of its poles. She said the cable fell from the pole that was being worked on, and all the chairs between that and another pole fell.

“They hadn’t even tried to start’’ the lift before it derailed, she said. “The rail looked like it bent, and that’s when the cable fell to the ground.’’

Parts of the lift damaged in the derailment will be replaced with new equipment before it is reopened, the resort said in a statement.

“Sugarloaf Mountain wishes the best for the people injured in the accident,’’ Austin said. “The resort remains committed to guest safety and its culture of safety instilled in every employee.’’

L. Finch can be reached at lfinch@globe.com.