CARRABASSETT VALLEY, Maine — 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.
Hurricane season forecast to be 'extremely active'
Batten down the hatches. Forecasters said Wednesday that the 2013 Atlantic hurricane season is likely to be "above normal and possibly extremely active," predicting three to six major hurricanes this season.
- Mom in labor as twister destroys hospital
- Third-grade pals died together, holding hands
- Activists rally – and pray – as Scouts vote on gays
- One child killed, one missing in Minnesota landslide
- Hurricane season forecast to be 'extremely active'
'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.
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.
Only on NBCNews.com
- From belief to betrayal: How America fell for Armstrong
- US to Syria neighbors: Be ready to act on WMDs
- China: One-child policy is here to stay
- New 'Practice Range' shooter game says it’s from NRA
- 'Gifted' priest indicted in crystal meth case
- China's state media admits to air pollution crisis
- French to send 1,000 more troops to Mali
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.