Chairlifts frequently stop, usually momentarily, but rarely does the cable pop off the wheels, flinging riders to the ground.
Yet that's what happened at Sugarloaf when the Spillway East chairlift cable came off the wheels at 10:30 a.m. Tuesday, Dec. 28, whipping five two-passenger chairs up to 30 feet toward the slope below, with at least three of those chairs reaching the ground, Sugarloaf officials said.
Resort operators and state officials are investigating the accident, but early thinking focused on extremely high wind gusts in the wake of a three-day storm that moved up the East Coast Sunday through Tuesday, Dec. 26-28.
"We will know more by mid day or so," Stephen Kircher, president of Eastern Operations for Boyne Resorts, told OnTheSnow at 7 a.m. today, Dec. 29. Boyne operates Sugarloaf, Sunday River, and Loon in New England.
"(I'm) just thankful that no one was hurt badly," he said.
"Wind was really whipping 50 mph or so," Kircher added.
Kircher told OnTheSnow earlier this year that Spillway East was on the drawing boards to be replaced because it is old, slow, and prone to wind holds.
Initial reports said six people were injured, later revised to eight.
Paul Norton of Natick, Mass., who was on Spillway East when the accident happened, gave this account to the Kennebec Journal:
"It felt like somebody slammed on the brakes. All of a sudden you could hear people screaming," Norton said. He said he saw a girl about five chairs back with her arms wrapped around the foot rest of the chair as the chair bounced own to about foot from the ground and back up 20 feet into the air.
He said a skier coming down the trail grabbed onto her feet, while another held her hips, and they brought her to the ground.
Norton told the Kennebec Journal that he took out his cell phone and posted an update on Facebook about the accident.
All injured riders were transported off the mountain by ambulance, according to Brad Larsen, vice president of sales and marketing at Sugarloaf. They were taken to Franklin Memorial Hospital in Farmington with injuries that are believed to be non-life-threatening, he said.
Larsen said about 150 other riders stranded on the more than 4,000-foot-long chairlift had to be lowered to the ground by ropes, with the evacuation completed by 12:30 p.m.
Jerry Cayer, executive vice president of the hospital, told the Kennebec Journal late Tuesday that of the eight injured riders, two were taken to Maine Medical Center in Portland, one by LifeFlight helicopter and one by ambulance. The other six were treated at the hospital, he said, with at least one admitted.
Cayer said five were adults and three were under the age of 18, though not young children.
Conditions at Sugarloaf over the weekend and into Tuesday were very windy, with gusts reported up to 50 mph early Tuesday. The lift was not opened Tuesday until the wind appeared to drop, around 9:55 a.m.
Ethan Austin of Sugarloaf said the Spillway East chair is a two-passenger monocable fixed-grip chair manufactured and installed by Borvig in 1975, and modified in 1983.
Spillway East is 4,013 feet long with a vertical of 1,454 feet. This chair moves at a speed of 500 feet per minute and the chairs are 50 feet apart. The lift has 162 chairs, each weighing 140 pounds. Spillway East has a 250-hp motor and a capacity for 1,200 skiers per hour, Austin said.
OnTheSnow prepared this report from a variety of sources, including Sugarloaf officials and information from the Kennebec Journal. We will continue to update the story as information becomes available.