CARRABASSETT VALLEY — Jake Foster of Hampden and his friend Radcliffe Mitchell of Veazie were sitting on the Spillway East chairlift at Sugarloaf on Tuesday morning, anticipating an enjoyable run through the 20 inches of new snow the ski resort received a day earlier.
Then disaster struck.
The cable that the chairs were attached to derailed, sending five of those chairs crashing 25 to 30 feet to the ground. At least eight people, three of them children, were taken to a hospital 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.
Foster and Mitchell, both 21, were sitting side by side in a chair that remained suspended well above the slope.
“We were just a couple of lift poles back, behind them. Probably 15 or 20 [chairs behind],” Foster said. “The lift stopped a couple of times and then inched forward a couple of times. When we started to go, we felt some pretty intense vibration on the cable that wasn’t right. We were like, ‘Uh-oh. What the heck?’ We heard people down below saying, ‘The cable came off.’ We could kind of see a crowd gathering up ahead.”
Foster said that as he and Mitchell sat and waited, they expected the worst.
“I was kind of afraid for a while that [the chair] was actually going to come down, and we were kind of braced for impact, almost,” he said. “But after about an hour of sitting there, I kind of gave up on that. We were up there for close to two hours.”
Foster said he and Mitchell, along with several other people on the lift, eventually were rescued by mountain safety personnel.
“They threw a rope over the cable and hoisted up this little T-stick, and we sat on it and they just lowered us down,” he said. “It was pretty intense. We were up pretty high. We were nowhere near jumping height. We were probably up 50 feet.
“They did everybody one at a time,” he said. “We were some of the last ones off. We were up there a long time. It was cold, too.”
There were about 150 skiers on the lift at the time, according to Sugarloaf, operated by Boyne Falls, Mich.-based Boyne Resorts.
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 later was transferred to the Maine Medical trauma center as well, Cayer said.
The Spillway East chairlift was installed in 1975 and modified in 1983. According to Doug Dunbar of the Maine Department of Professional and Financial Regulation, the lift was properly licensed and inspected.
A Sugarloaf official said in August he hoped this would be the last winter that the Spillway lift would be in operation before being replaced. The lift is 4,013 feet long and nearly reaches the summit of 4,327-foot Sugarloaf, the state’s second-tallest mountain.
High winds kept the failed lift out of operation at the start of the day but it later was 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 the exact cause of the failure is being investigated. Wind were gusting at 40 mph at the time.
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 failed lift and two others started the day on a “wind hold,” he said, but 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, he said.
Rebecca London, one of the skiers who tumbled to the snow, told The Associated Press that she had a soft landing because the resort had not groomed the new-fallen snow underneath the lift. Her face hit the retaining bar, but her goggles spared her from serious injury, she said.
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 begin treating the injured. London, 20, of Carrabassett Valley, said she wasn’t hurt badly enough to go to a hospital.
Jay Marshall of Carrabassett Valley, hunkered down in a cold wind while on a lift next to the broken one, said that his lift was moving but that the broken one was not.
There was a “loud snapping noise” after the lift restarted, he said, then he heard screams.
“The next thing I know, it was bouncing up and down like a yo-yo,” he said. Some skiers tumbled from their chairs.
Gideon Hacker, a skier from Princeton, N.J., said he saw at least one person taken off the mountain in a gurney pulled by a snowmobile.
Resort general manager John Diller highlighted several projects that Sugarloaf would be tackling in the years ahead during a press conference held Aug. 31. During that conference, Diller said replacing the Spillway lift was “our No. 1 priority.”
Diller said at the time that the resort was in the process of assessing the financial implications of replacing the lift and was hopeful that planning could be done during the winter, with a summer 2011 installation of a new lift to follow.
“[A replacement] would be a heavier lift that would work in the wind, which is extremely important up there,” Diller said in August. “And it would run faster than the lift that we have, somewhere around 10 to 20 percent faster than what we’ve got.”
Charlotte Kirk, 16, of Falmouth is a season pass holder who spends most of her winter weekends at Sugarloaf.
She said she rode the Spillway chairlift on Monday but did not on Tuesday. Kirk was on the mountain earlier in the day and found out about the accident when her cell phone began ringing.
“I was in the base lodge, and I started getting phone calls from my dad and my brother asking where I was, because they were concerned that I might have been on [the lift],” Kirk said.
Kirk said there was no panic among skiers as they began getting word of what was happening higher up on the mountain.
“People were just kind of like looking around,” she said. “They didn’t really know what was going on. But we saw people weren’t getting on the Quad [chairlift] anymore, and people just started coming in.”
Kirk said although the wind was blowing Tuesday, she has seen far worse at the mountain. In fact, she said Monday’s weather was far more formidable.
“It’s not too bad. The conditions were pretty good, so I’m not sure if [the accident took place] because of the wind or if something just went wrong with the chair,” Kirk said. “The snow is good. It’s windy in some parts, but it didn’t seem too windy.”
Despite the accident, Kirk said she planned on hitting the slopes later in the afternoon, after the SuperQuad lift was reopened. She did say, however, that she would be a little leery of the Spillway lift.
“It just makes me worry,” Kirk said. “I don’t want to be in that same position. I can’t imagine what they were thinking when it happened. I’ll be nervous the next time I ride that chair, I think.”
Ski resort chairlifts fall under the jurisdiction of the department’s Board of Elevator and Tramway Safety, and two inspectors were being sent to Sugarloaf, Dunbar said. The Maine Emergency Management Agency was sending a representative as well, a spokeswoman 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.
At 4,237 feet, Sugarloaf is Maine’s second-highest mountain after Mount Katahdin.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.