CARRABASSETT VALLEY, Maine – A 35-year-old chairlift 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-chairlift 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, 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 25-30 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. Sugarloaf workers used a pulley-like system to lower skiers to safety.
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 lift was properly licensed and inspected for 2010, said Doug Dunbar of the Maine Department of Professional and Financial Regulation. Ski lifts fall under the jurisdiction of the department’s Board of Elevator and Tramway Safety, and inspectors were dispatched to Sugarloaf, Dunbar said.