Chairlift horror in Maine

1st January 2011, by Chris Gill

Accident scene Spillway, Sugarloaf

Accident scene Spillway, Sugarloaf

Officials at a ski resort in Maine, USA, are investigating why a chairlift became detached from its cables last week, sending skiers and boarders crashing to the ground.

The accident happened on 28 December at Sugarloaf ski area, 120km north of Portland. The old two-seat chair was packed with holiday visitors when it derailed, sending five chairs plunging to the ground and leaving over 150 people trapped in freezing conditions.

Six people were injured in the fall, none of them seriously. But other skiers were trapped in their chairs for 90 minutes or more until rescuers could lower them to the ground.

High winds coupled with cold temperatures meant than people also started to suffer frostbite and hypothermia symptoms during their wait.

Witnesses reported a big jerk and being bounced around in their seats just before the cable ran off-its track. One visitor said: ‘The lift started again. I could then see the cable bouncing up and down and that it had come off the track wheels. It was terrifying.’

The Spillway East fixed-grip chair was installed at Sugarloaf in 1975, and modified in 1983. It was 1220m long and moved at 153m per minute. Although regularly receiving required inspection, the lift was up for replacement this coming summer.

Initial causes are thought to be the high winds affecting the lift that day – gusts of 40-50mph were hitting the exposed chair at the time of the accident. And workers were also thought to be attempting to realign a cable at the time.

The resort had been on alert to hold lifts during the windy weather, which followed a heavy snowstorm. It is thought that the Spillway chair would likely have been closed, but that the cable slipped moments beforehand.

Accidents such as this are extremely rare. According to local reports, around 12 people have been killed since the 1970’s. Two notable US events were four deaths in Vail in 1976 and four in Squaw Valley in 1978.

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