Skiers Plummet When Maine Ski Lift Derails

PHOTO: Sugarloaf Ski Lift Accident
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A ski lift in Maine, crowded with holiday skiers, derailed at 10:30 this morning and sent at least a half dozen people, including children, plunging 25 to 30 feet to the frozen ground.

"We were about six chairs up from it fell, and my mom she fell off it and she is in the hospital right now with a cracked rib," said Tabor Van Rison, who witnessed the accident.

A rescue effort was launched immediately to reach the skiers who fell at the Sugarloaf ski area in Maine's Carrabassett Valley, and the more-than-160 other skiers who were trapped on the lift for as long as 90 minutes in frigid temperatures. Everyone from the lift was evacuated by shortly after noon.

"It was pretty scary," said Rebecca London. "I mean we were up there for a really long time, so we didn't want anything else to happen."

The resort is 120 miles north of Portland, Maine.

The ski resort said in a statement that five chairs plummeted off the lift. Ethan Austin, a spokesman for Sugarloaf, told The Associated Press the accident was "a big deal."

The accident occurred on the Spillway East chairlift. The Sugarloaf resort said that six people were injured, but that none of the injuries was life threatening.

Sugarloaf said there were 220 people on the lift at the time. At 4,237 feet, Sugarloaf is Maine's second-highest mountain.

Ben Simms, a senior at Harrington High School in Pennsylvania, told ABC News he was on the lift when "there was a big jerk and we bounced up and down about 10 feet and then we stopped and we were there for about a half-hour before we found out about what happened."

Simms was skiing with his mother, Paula Michaud, who was 10 chairs ahead of him.

"I thought maybe she was one of the people who fell," Simms said. "Every time they'd bring someone down in the toboggan I'd look to see if it was my mom. I was nervous; I thought maybe my mom had fallen."

As it turned out, his mother was also one of the ones stuck on the lift.

"The wind was blowing so hard, but luckily we were dressed to go skiing. A couple of people got frost bite," Michaud said. "I've been skiing all my life, but this has never happened to me."

Mark Fraleigh, who was on the lift at the time, told the Portland Press Herald in an online post, "The winds started getting intense, as is typical on the chair ... it stopped for a few minutes, started up again and then stopped very soon, after only 10 seconds or so."

The lift started and stopped again, he said, describing it as "very turbulent," with the chair bouncing.

Fraleigh said he was only about three chairs from the top of the lift when it stopped for the last time.

"We could see a chair at the very top of the lift sitting crooked and we knew something was up and then we were just sitting on the chair being eaten by freezing windchill for roughly 15 minutes," he said.

Craig Marshall, 18, was on a nearby lift with his father. "We could see that the other lift was bouncing," he said. "The chairs were on the ground and the wheels that were on the tower that the lift goes over had kind of snapped off, they were holding on by a thread. Certainly wind was a factor. It was really windy up there today."

Conditions at the time of the accident were blustery. The National Weather Service reported winds in the area gusting from 29 to 43 mph. The temperature was 12 degrees at the time, resulting in a windchill of 9 below zero. It was not immediately known if the weather was a factor in the accident.

Derailed Ski Lift Due for Upgrade

Liz Hinckley was on the T-bar lift, parallel to the Spillway East lift, and arrived at the scene moments after the accident.

She told ABC News the skiers were "very calm, and the rescue crews got there very quickly. It was very cold, and there were some young kids who were fairly high up," when the lift came to a halt.

Franklin County Emergency Management told ABC affiliate WMTW that officials received word of a "condition yellow," which means people were injured, not critically.

A spokeswoman for Franklin Memorial Hospital in Farmington, Maine, said eight of the injured were being taken there by ambulance, including some children. The hospital is 45 minutes from the ski area. One of the injured was later taken by helicopter from Farmington to Maine Medical Center in Portland for treatment.

Jay Marshall, who was on a lift next to the broken one, told the AP that both lifts stopped, then restarted. Almost immediately he saw a problem, then heard screams.

"The lift started again. I looked to my left and could see the cable bouncing up and down. I could see that the cable had come off the (track wheels)," he said. "It was terrifying."

The Spillway East chairlift is 4,013 feet long. It was installed in 1975 and modified in 1983. It moves at a speed of 500 feet per minute, and the chairs are 50 feet apart.

According to state records, it was last inspected by the Maine Office of Licensing and Regulation on Oct. 20, and was not due to be inspected again until Nov. 30, 2011.

Sugarloaf said the chairlift receives routine daily inspections, as well as weekly, monthly and yearly maintenance and testing.

On its website, Sugarloaf said the Spillway life "is ... vulnerable to wind holds," and that improvements are underway to improve the mechanism.

The Associated Press contributed to this report

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