CARRABASSETT VALLEY, Maine – A 35-year-old chair lift that was due to be replaced failed Tuesday in high winds at a Maine resort, sending skiers — some of them children — plummeting into ungroomed snow far below that fell with the Northeast's recent blizzard and softened the landing.
At least eight people, three of them children, were taken to a hospital after the double-chair lift at Sugarloaf derailed during a busy vacation week at the resort 120 miles north of Portland. Dozens of skiers remained on the crippled lift for more than an hour until patrols could get them down.
High winds kept the failed lift out of operation at the start of the day but it was later deemed safe to use before the accident, said Ethan Austin, spokesman for Sugarloaf. The resort said a cable that supports the chairs jumped off track, though the exact cause of the failure is being investigated. Wind were gusting at 40 mph at the time.
The resort said the lift, which went into service in 1975 and recently passed an inspection, was due to be replaced, partly because of vulnerability to wind. Five chairs fell 25 to 30 feet onto a ski trail below, Austin said.
Rebecca London, one of the skiers who tumbled to the snow, told The Associated Press that her face hit a retaining bar but her goggles spared her from serious injury. She credited new snow underneath the lift with a soft landing; the resort said it got 20 to 22 inches in Monday's storm.
"Thankfully, they didn't groom it last night, so they left it like it was," she said. "So the snow was all soft."
Most of the skiers who fell appeared to be stunned but OK, she said, and the ski patrol was on the scene within minutes to treat the injured. London, 20, of Carrabassett Valley, said she wasn't hurt badly enough to go to a hospital.
Jay Marshall, a ski coach who had hunkered down in a cold wind while on a lift next to the one that broke, said his lift was moving but the other was not.
There was a "loud snapping noise" after the lift restarted, he said, then some screams.
"The next thing I know, it was bouncing up and down like a yo-yo," said Marshall, of Carrabassett Valley. He said it was too difficult to watch, so he looked away. "It was terrifying," he said.
There were about 150 skiers on the lift at the time, according to Sugarloaf, operated by Boyne Falls, Mich.-based Boyne Resorts. Sugarloaf workers used a pulley-like system to lower skiers to safety.
Eight people were taken 35 miles to Franklin Memorial Hospital in Farmington; one was immediately flown to Maine Medical Center in Portland, said Gerald Cayer, the hospital's executive vice president. A second patient was later transferred to the Maine Medical trauma center as well, Cayer said.
It's unclear whether the accident was wind-related or mechanical. Because of its position on the face of the mountain, the lift that failed is more vulnerable to being shut down because of high winds, said Austin, the resort spokesman.
The failed lift and two others started the day on a "wind hold," he said, but Sugarloaf officials later deemed it safe to operate before the accident at 10:30 a.m.
Guidelines for "wind holds" include wind speed and other factors, but sometimes it's as simple as noting whether chairs are swinging in the wind, he said.
The failed East Spillway lift is 4,013 feet long, gains 1,454 feet of elevation and nearly reaches the summit of 4,327-foot Sugarloaf, the state's second-tallest mountain. It went into service in 1975 and was modified in 1983, according to Sugarloaf officials.
Betsy Twombly of Falmouth said the resort notified season pass holders like herself that the lift would be the first to be replaced under a 10-year improvement plan. Austin told reporters it was on a list of those to be upgraded but declined to say when that was due to happen.
A website dedicated to Sugarloaf's master plan said the first priority for lifts was to replace the spillway with a larger quad lift, partly because of vulnerability to the wind. The Bangor Daily News quoted John Diller, Sugarloaf's general manager, as saying in late August that he hoped this would be the last winter for the lift.
"A fixed-grip quad will provide faster and more reliable transportation for skiers and, due to its additional weight, will be significantly less prone to wind holds than the current lift," the website said.
Twombly witnessed the aftermath of the accident and praised the quick work of Sugarloaf workers, who she said worked calmly and efficiently to get people down from the lift and off the mountain.
"I expected to see hysteria, but there was none," she said.
Sugarloaf assured visitors that its lifts are inspected each day.
"We haven't had a derailment of this magnitude in the 60 years Sugarloaf has been in operation," said Richard Wilkinson, vice president for mountain operations.
The lift was properly licensed and inspected for 2010, said Doug Dunbar of Maine Department of Professional and Financial Regulation. Ski resort chair lifts fall under the jurisdiction of the department's Board of Elevator and Tramway Safety, and two inspectors were dispatched to Sugarloaf, Dunbar said.
Contributing to this report were Associated Press writers David Sharp in Portland; Holly Ramer in Concord, N.H.; Wilson Ring in Montpelier, Vt.; and Bob Salsberg and Jay Lindsay in Boston.
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