A preliminary investigation found that a “major mechanical failure” caused a chair lift to abruptly roll backward Saturday morning at Maine’s Sugarloaf Mountain Resort, injuring seven people and leaving 200 skiers and snowboarders dangling for up to 90 minutes, a resort spokesman said Sunday.
The investigators’ findings show that a gearbox connecting the lift’s motor and its cable wheel failed, disconnecting the wheel from two separate braking systems, according to a statement from the spokesman, Ethan Austin.
Just one day earlier, the gearbox passed a routine maintenance test, Austin said.
A lift attendant applied an emergency brake that slowed and eventually stopped the rollback, probably preventing a more serious accident, he said.
The lift will remain closed pending further investigation.
“Our first concern remains with those who were injured, and those who went through a truly frightening experience,” Austin said in the statement. “Based on what we know now, we’re grateful that this situation wasn’t any worse.”
The resort’s King Pine chair lift slammed to a halt at 11:34 a.m., then rolled back about 450 feet, leading some passengers to jump off, witnesses said.
“It just looked like mayhem,” said Wes Wigglesworth, an Amesbury resident who was about halfway up the mountain when the lift began its downhill slide.
Three of the seven adults injured were taken to Franklin Memorial Hospital in Farmington, Maine, about an hour’s drive from the Carrabassett Valley resort, according to hospital spokeswoman Jill Gray.
Two were discharged Saturday night, while a third was transferred to Central Maine Medical Center in Lewiston. A medical center spokesman did not respond to a message Sunday.
Gray and Austin both declined to identify the injured, citing medical privacy laws. In a phone interview Austin described how the injuries occurred.
“The types were consistent with what you’d expect from a fall of maybe 10 to 15 feet, so things like bumps and bruises, fractures,” he said. “There were some people on the ground near the terminal as the chairs came through. It’s possible that some injuries were because of that.”
The lift receives weekly, monthly, and yearly inspections, and in October it passed a “full dynamic load test,” which is mandated by the state every seven years and simulates the weight of a full complement of riders, Austin said.
In December 2010, another Sugarloaf chairlift derailed, injuring eight people who fell about 25 feet and leaving 150 others dangling for up to two hours amid gusts of up to 25 miles per hour.
Lewiston lawyer Benjamin Gideon represented several of those injured in 2010. Four cases ended in settlements with Sugarloaf, Gideon said. His clients in the fifth case, a father and his two daughters, 13 and 11 at the time, who suffered head and back injuries, are still pursuing a lawsuit.
Gideon said lift safety is governed by federal and state statutes and enforced by state agencies such as Maine’s Board of Elevator and Tramway Safety, but in effect the industry is largely self-regulated because agencies are not staffed sufficiently to conduct regular inspections.
“In Maine, the office has, I think, three full-time employees, and they regulate hundreds and hundreds of equipment facilities throughout the state — elevators and ski areas,” he said.
The lift that malfunctioned Saturday passed a required inspection prior to ski season and generated no complaints prior to the accident, according to Doug Dunbar, a spokesman for the board.
Maine’s chief tramway inspector was at Sugarloaf on Saturday and Sunday to help with the inquiry, Dunbar said.
An investigation following the 2010 derailment found flaws in Sugarloaf’s safety procedures.
“The state’s report concluded that there were numerous deficiencies and shortcomings in the maintenance and inspection of the lifts,” Gideon said. “They were not doing a particularly good, vigilant job at that time.”
Since then, Sugarloaf has created a new position — director of lifts — and the director has “overhauled the way the department documents everything that they do,” Austin said.
“I can tell you with firsthand knowledge, the documentation is pretty impeccable as it pertains to the King Pine lift over the past seven or eight months,” he said.
Gideon said in his research, major lift malfunctions leading to serious injuries are “extremely rare.” Still, in New England and across the country, there are sometimes problems.
On New Year’s Eve, about 40 people were stranded on a California lift, some for more than two hours, after wind blew a cable off its line.