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State: High winds played role in Maine ski lift derailment

By the CNN Wire Staff
Skiers are helped off a lift at Maine's Sugarloaf Mountain Ski Resort on Tuesday.
Skiers are helped off a lift at Maine's Sugarloaf Mountain Ski Resort on Tuesday.
  • NEW: Ski resort lays out timeline of incident
  • Winds were gusting between 30 and 50 mph
  • Scores of people were trapped for more than 90 minutes
  • The location is 100 miles north of Portland, Maine

(CNN) -- Two state inspectors believe wind played a "contributing role" in the derailment of a ski lift that left eight people injured and trapped more than 150 people at Sugarloaf Mountain Ski Resort, Maine's Department of Professional and Financial Regulation said Wednesday.

"The inspectors believe wind played a contributing role in the incident but they continue to evaluate all potential factors," said Doug Dunbar of the Department of Professional and Financial Regulation. "The inspectors are working cooperatively with Sugarloaf to gather all necessary information."

There was no time set for completion of a preliminary report on the cause, Dunbar said.

Sugarloaf provided a sequence of Tuesday's incident, saying mechanics were unable to fix a problem with the Spillway East lift and were trying to off-load guests when the lift's cable skipped over the edge of a pulley, causing five chairs to fall between 25 and 30 feet to the ground, officials said.

Before the accident, high winds had delayed the the opening of several lifts. Conditions at the time of the accident were windy, but not unusually so following a major snowstorm, resort spokesman Ethan Austin said. Winds were gusting between 30 mph and 50 mph in the area at the time, according to CNN meteorologist Jacqui Jeras.

Scary moments for skiers stuck on lift
Frightening moments at ski resort
  • Maine
  • Skiing
  • Weather

Winds had diminished by mid-morning and a chairlift mechanic and the ski patrol director checked the Spillway East lift's towers and terminals and conducted standard safety checks before the lift opened at 9:55 a.m., Sugarloaf said in a statement Wednesday.

Two chairlift mechanics responded to a maintenance request for Tower 8 at 10:23 a.m. and they noticed the chairlift cable was "running toward the outside of the rubber liners of the sheave train (the wheels on which the cable is supported)," Sugarloaf said.

Two other mechanics came to the tower and the bottom terminal. The tower mechanic adjusted the sheave train and "the lift was slowly started to enable the cable to settle back into the correct location on the sheaves."

The realignment effort was unsuccessful, and after trying the procedure again in vain, the tower mechanic determined the lift should not operate at normal speed and that it should be closed, Sugarloaf said.

"Mechanics started the lift at a slow operating speed to begin off-loading the guests who were on the lift," according to the statement.

Shortly after the lift was restarted at reduced speed, the cable "deroped" from Tower 8, leaving the cable suspended between towers 9 and 7, Sugarloaf said. "Lacking the support of the sheave wheels on Tower 8, five chairs struck the snow below," Sugarloaf said.

The lift was immediately stopped.

Fifty-four people assisted in the evacuation of the lift, said Sugarloaf, which operates the resort about 100 miles north of Portland, Maine.

"The chairs were pretty mangled, but the ski patrol was there right away," patron Ben Martin told CNN affiliate WCSH.

Three of eight guests who reported injuries were transported from Franklin Memorial Hospital to Maine Medical Center in Portland, Sugarloaf said.

Robb Atkinson, a CNN employee who initially was trapped on the lift, said he saw skiers fall from the lift when it came to an abrupt stop during high winds.

"I felt a jerk," said Atkinson, who was riding the lift with his wife. He also described hearing "screams from skiers below" as he watched at least three chairs fall feet to the ground.

Matt Rolfson, 17, of Albion, Maine, was on a parallel lift with a friend and shot video from his helmet cam of injured skiers.

"People on the lift yelled to see if everyone was OK," said Rolfson, adding a portion of the Spillway East line did a "yo-yo."

He told CNN his lift was unaffected and he skied down later to offer assistance.