A packed ski lift abruptly halted and rolled backward at Maine’s Sugarloaf Mountain on Saturday morning, leaving seven adults injured — four of them hospitalized — and more than 200 skiers and snowboarders dangling for up to an hour and a half, resort officials said.
The four most seriously injured were taken by ambulance to Franklin Memorial Hospital in Farmington, Maine, about 40 miles from the Carrabassett Valley resort, with non-life-threatening injuries, according to resort spokesman Ethan Austin.
A hospital spokeswoman did not immediately respond to a request for information Saturday.
Maine state inspectors are investigating the cause of the rollback that occurred at 11:34 a.m. It sent skiers aboard the resort’s King Pine chairlift backward about 450 feet, leading many alarmed passengers to leap to the ground, according to officials and witnesses.
“It just looked like mayhem,” said Wes Wigglesworth, an Amesbury, Mass., resident who said he was about halfway up the mountain when the lift abruptly stopped and his chair swung forward and then slid downhill on the backswing.
“When I turned around, the chair lift was still moving,” said Wigglesworth, 45, describing the confusion below where he heard riders screaming in fear. “I think people at that point were just jumping out of the chair because they were down low . . . and that’s when people got injured.”
Greg Hoffmeister, 44, of Needham, and his 14-year-old daughter, Julie, were about 700 feet up the mountain, ready to ski down a slope reserved for expert skiers.
Hoffmeister said their chair rolled backward for 25 to 30 seconds before stopping above high snowbanks, about 10 to 12 feet below their legs. Fearing another lurch, the two Hoffmeisters quickly removed their skis and dropped down safely into the snow.
“The thought crossed my mind that, wow, if the cable gives way, all of these chairs would come crashing down, and it would be tragic,” Hoffmeister said. “Most people were 20 to 30 feet above the ground, above a very steep slope, which makes it feel a lot higher.”
Hoffmeister’s wife and two other daughters were two or three chairs back, too far from the ground to jump.
Hoffmeister and Julie skied back toward the lift’s entrance and saw a few injured people being tended to by emergency workers. He said some people looked like they had been hit by other chairs and ski poles when the lift flew backward. “It was some pretty scary stuff,” he said.
The full evacuation of the lift by safety personnel and ski patrol units assigned to the mountain took about an hour and 15 minutes, ending at 1:22 p.m., Austin said.
By late afternoon an inspector from the State of Maine Board of Elevator and Tramway Safety was on the scene, according to Austin.
This was not the first chairlift accident at Sugarloaf. In December 2010, a different chairlift derailed, injuring eight people who fell about 25 feet and leaving about 150 others stranded in the air for up to two hours amid wind gusts of up to 25 miles per hour.
Mark Lopez, chief of the Carrabassett Valley Police Department, said his officers played a “very minor” role in Saturday’s rescue effort, helping the injured and their families.
Ambulances arrived quickly and were waiting when the injured skiers arrived at a clinic at the ski area, Lopez said.
The lift will remain closed as officials investigate the malfunction. Built in 1988, the lift’s 122 chairs are about 50 feet apart and travel at roughly 450 feet per minute.
Austin said the chairlift is checked daily by resort personnel and is inspected annually by the elevator and tramway safety board. According to the resort, King Pine chairlift is 3,400 feet long with a vertical height of 1,074 feet.
Brunswick, Maine, resident Norman Rattey, 63, was on the same chair as Wigglesworth and two other men. He said he expected the lift to quickly recover after it initially slammed to a stop.
“I thought it was going to just pick up speed again and go forward, but instead it started free-falling backwards,” he said. “I figured when half of us were on the uphill that it would stop, when it balanced out.”
Rattey and Wigglesworth said they were among the last rescued, waiting about an hour and a half to be lowered to the ground with a pulley system.
Wigglesworth praised the professionalism of the ski patrol’s rescue response.
“Once it started, it was very orderly and calm, and one person at a time,” he said.