The state agency investigating a ski lift accident that sent chairs plummeting 25 to 35 feet at Sugarloaf found an inadequate maintenance program and inconsistent training, and noted that the resort didn’t even have a complete maintenance manual for the 35-year-old lift, according to a report released Friday.
The Maine State Board of Elevator and Tramway Safety was unable to determine exactly what caused the accident that sent eight skiers to the hospital on Dec. 28. But investigators said primary factors that played a role included high winds and problems with maintenance, procedures and components. The report also noted that a technician had to manually hit a button after the derailment to stop the lift from moving after a safety mechanism failed to work as intended.
Sugarloaf General Manager John Diller said the ski resort has made changes to improve maintenance procedures to ensure the safety of skiers and employees. On the day of the accident, the resort was buffeted by gusts in excess of 40 mph a day after a blizzard blew through the state. High winds had shut down the Spillway East lift before the accident but it was cleared for operations and reopened about half an hour before cable jumped its track. While the wind and aging components were cited as potential contributing factors, investigators zeroed in on maintenance procedures and training.
The report said maintenance records were inadequate and that the ski resort lacked a complete maintenance manual and a complete record of the drawings for the lift. Without a maintenance manual, it was impossible to determine if all procedures had been followed, the investigators concluded.
The report also said lift mechanics failed to receive training in “a structured or formalized manner” and that mechanics on the lift towers used an unorthodox method of adjusting the angle of the assembly of grooved wheels–known as a sheave train–over which the steel cable runs. Before the accident, a mechanic had climbed a lift tower to make adjustments because the lift cable was in danger of popping out of the wheel assembly.
One mechanic made adjustments while a second technician remained at the controls at the bottom of the hill. The operator started and stopped the lift several times as the mechanic made adjustments. Eventually, they decided to run the lift in slow mode to offload the passengers; that’s when the lift cable popped out of place, causing chairs to drop, the report said.
When the cable dropped, it missed one of two cable catchers aimed at preventing such a disaster, and it also missed a safety device that should’ve caused the lift to stop instantly; instead, the chairs were dragged about 40 feet after they fell until a mechanic manually hit the stop button, the report said.
The lift which derailed, Spillway East, is a double-chair lift identified as vulnerable to wind, and it was on Sugarloaf’s short list of lifts due for replacement even before the accident. It’s currently in the process of being torn down and will be replaced this summer by a $3 million quad lift.