Video: Skiers describe chair lift ordeal

  1. Transcript of: Skiers describe chair lift ordeal

    CURRY: All right, Mike Seidel this morning. Mike , thanks. Liza Tarr and Derek Miller were on one of the chairs that fell 30 feet. Hey, guys, good morning to both of you.

    Ms. LIZA TARR (Survived Chairlift Accident): Good morning.

    Mr. DEREK MILLER (Survived Chairlift Accident): Good morning.

    CURRY: So there you are riding the lift, it's Tuesday morning, you're heading up the mountain. Here's the interesting thing. The lift stopped right next to -- you were right next to an operator who was working on the lift. What did you observe and did it give you any alarm about what was about -- potentially about to happen?

    Ms. TARR: Derek .

    Mr. MILLER: Well, we stopped about five feet away from him. It just looked like he was tightening a couple of the adjustments they could make to try and get the cable running where it should've been running on the track. You know, and then from there, they were trying to just more or less coax the cable back into where it was supposed to be. And then they moved us up about 50 feet on the -- on the line back from there.

    CURRY: Uh-huh .

    Ms. TARR: It wasn't very alarming. I don't -- I don't think it occurred to us as anything out of the norm.

    Mr. MILLER: Yeah.

    Ms. TARR: We've been skiing here forever and we've seen that happen and you know, they were just trying to fix the problem, so that was totally, you know, didn't occur to us as anything strange.

    CURRY: And the problem, you're saying, is that it was a little off track and is -- am I right in understanding that the -- that this operator said, 'Hey, we're all clear' and that's when they started the lift again?

    Mr. MILLER: I think, actually, they -- I think what I -- from what I heard over the radio is they were looking to close the lift down and then possibly just evacuate, like try and run it to get everyone off and then maybe make some adjustments without the weight of all the passengers on the chairlift.

    CURRY: Mm-hmm.

    Mr. MILLER: You know, we were fortunate enough to get moved halfway up to tower nine by the time the cable jumped track. That's why, you know, we're standing here today.

    CURRY: Mm-hmm.

    Mr. MILLER: Hopefully going to be skiing here soon.

    CURRY: Uh-huh .

    Mr. MILLER: But, you know, yeah, I think, you know, I think they were doing everything they could. It's just one of those things that you can't really foresee and don't expect.

    CURRY: Well, tell us exactly what happened in terms of this fall because a few minutes after they started the lift again, that's when you started to see what was going on and you two were involved in this plunge. Tell us exactly what you saw and felt.

    Ms. TARR: Oh, God. Well, we -- like we said, we had stopped earlier right under tower eight, which is the tower that -- where the track, you know, where the cable fell off the track. And they started the lift again and we moved forward about 50 feet and stopped a second time. And then at that point, all of a sudden we just fell, a free fall, and we just dropped and we just saw the ground coming closer and closer to us. I don't think it really occurred to us what was going on until it actually happened. We were so scared and then we kind of, you know, swooped back up in the air and bounced down again another time and settled about six feet above the ground. We never actually made contact. Our skis did brush the trail and you know, there was kind of a cloud of snow that came up as people were hitting the trail, but luckily we did not make contact. And we just kind of looked at each other and we were sitting there in our chairs suspended. We were just in such shock, we didn't really move and then somebody from the parallel lift, Spillway Shortside , that was still operating, yelled at us to jump off, you know, get out of there. And so we just were both kind of jarred back to life and just jumped off.

    CURRY: Right.

    Ms. TARR: We were only about five feet off the trail. So it was -- it was very scary, but we're very grateful that we were not in one of the chairs, you know, that hit and we were able to evacuate safely and you know, live to tell the tale, so.

    CURRY: Yeah. Well, apparently everyone will because all of the injuries, we're told, are not life-threatening...

    Ms. TARR: Yes.

    CURRY: ...but certainly a lot of questions being raised as we heard in the report earlier about...

    Ms. TARR: Yeah.

    CURRY: ...why this may have happened and we don't really quite know yet. Liza Tarr and Derek Miller , if you are getting back on the slopes today, you be careful now, stay warm and careful.

Image: Skiers and lift chairs after a lift derailed at Sugarloaf resort in Maine
Al Noyes  /  AP
This photo provided by Al Noyes shows skiers and lift chairs on the slope after a lift derailed at the Sugarloaf resort in Carrabassett Valley, Maine, on Tuesday.
NBC, msnbc.com and news services
updated 12/29/2010 5:04:35 PM ET 2010-12-29T22:04:35

A Maine ski area says workers who were trying to realign a ski lift cable had stopped to get riders off the lift when the cable jumped its track, sending skiers plummeting 25 to 30 feet.

The lift had been cleared for operations following high winds that shut it down earlier in the day. Sugarloaf resort said Wednesday that about 20 minutes after the lift reopened, two maintenance workers were dispatched to one of its towers, where they saw the cable out of place. They couldn't fix it and were preparing to shut down the lift when the cable derailed.

A team of inspectors from the state's Board of Elevator and Tramway Safety said their preliminary finding was that "the primary cause of the derailment was due to gusts of high-speed winds," NBC station WLBZ reported. However, officials were continuing their investigation.

At least eight people, including three children, were taken to a hospital after the double-chair lift derailed during a busy vacation week at the Sugarloaf resort on Tuesday. Dozens of skiers remained on the crippled lift for more than an hour until patrols could get them down.

By Wednesday, six of the eight hospitalized skiers had been released. A hospital spokeswoman said the other two were transferred to larger hospital, but a spokeswoman there declined to say whether the hospital was treating them.

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. Winds were gusting at 40 mph at the time.

Video: Eight injured after ski lift derails (on this page)

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.

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'Cloud of snow'
Skiers Derek Miller and Liza Tarr had a ringside seat as operators attempted to readjust a cable on the lift just moments before it sent the pair plummeting 30 feet toward the ground. Their lift chair stopped just five feet from the lift operator.

"It looked like (the operator) was trying to make an adjustment to try to get the cable running where it should have been running in the track," Miller told NBC's TODAY from Carrabassett Valley on Wednesday. "From what I heard over the radio, they were looking to close the lift down, and then run it to get everyone off and then maybe make some adjustments without all the weight of the passengers."

But the lift began moving forward and then derailed, sending its passengers plummeting toward the ski trail.

Tarr said they had no time to react. "All of the sudden we just felt a free fall and we dropped," she told TODAY. "We saw the ground coming closer and closer to us. I don't think it really occurred to us what was going on, we were so scared."

Like a bungee cord, the lift's cable sent the couple perilously close to the ground, but then pulled them back up while less fortunate passengers slammed into the snow.

"Luckily we did not make contact; there was kind of a cloud of snow that came up as people were hitting the track," Tarr said. "We just kind of looked at each other; we were in such shock we didn't move. Then somebody from a parallel lift yelled, 'Jump off, get out of there!' So we both kind of jarred back to life and jumped off.

Video: Skiers describe chair lift ordeal (on this page)

"It was very scary, but we were very grateful that we were not in one of the chairs that hit and we were able to evacuate safely and live to tell the tale."

Brad Larsen, Sugarloaf's vice president for sales and marketing, said Tuesday that the failed lift and two others started the day on a "wind hold." 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, Larsen added.

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However, one skier who fell the 25 to 30 feet said she didn't remember it being exceptionally windy.

"I mean maybe it was a small factor, but I don't think that it was a giant factor because I know the mountain wouldn't have opened the lift if it wasn't safe," Rebecca London told ABC's "Good Morning America."

"And I also have been on that chair lift in higher winds," she added. "I don't remember it being outrageously high winds yesterday."

London, 20, of Carrabassett Valley, 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 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.

'Loud snapping noise'
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.

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.

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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.

The Associated Press and NBC News contributed to this report.

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