Eight hurt in ski lift accident in Maine

A 35-year-old chair lift due to be replaced has derailed in high winds, sending skiers – some of them children – plummeting into ungroomed snow at a popular Maine ski resort.

Five adults and three children were taken to hospital after the double-chair lift at Sugarloaf derailed yesterday at the resort 200 kilometres north of Portland.

Dozens of skiers remained on the crippled lift for more than an hour until the ski patrol could get them down.

It’s unclear whether the accident was wind-related or mechanical, officials said. The ski resort was being buffeted by winds gusting up to 65km/h a day after a blizzard blew through.

The resort said the lift, which recently passed an inspection, was due to be replaced – possibly as early as this coming northern summer – partly because of vulnerability to wind.

Five chairs fell seven-to nine metres onto a ski trail below, Sugarloaf spokesman Ethan Austin said.  Rebecca London, 20, one of the skiers who tumbled to the snow, told The Associated Press that her face hit a retaining bar but her goggles spared her from serious injury.

She credited new snow underneath the lift with a soft landing; the resort said it got 50-55cm in yesterday’s storm.  “Thankfully, they didn’t groom it last night, so they left it like it was,” Ms London said. “So the snow was all soft.”

Most of the skiers who fell appeared to be stunned but OK, she said, and the ski patrol was on the scene within minutes to treat the injured.  Jay Marshall, who was on a lift that was parallel to the one that broke, said his lift was moving but the other was not.  There was a “loud snapping noise” after the lift restarted, he said, then some screams.

“The next thing I know, it was bouncing up and down like a yo-yo,” said Mr Marshall.  Mr Marshall said there was a worker atop the tower where the lift’s cable derailed but noted that could have been a coincidence.  It was not uncommon to see workers on the lift towers, he said.

All told, there were about 150 skiers on the lift at the time, according to Sugarloaf, operated by Michigan-based Boyne Resorts. Sugarloaf workers used a pulley-like system to lower skiers to safety.  Eight people were taken to nearby Franklin Memorial Hospital in Farmington, said Gerald Cayer, the hospital’s executive vice president.

Two of them were transferred to Maine Medical Centre in Portland, Mr Cayer said.  The failed lift and two others started the day on a “wind hold” because of the blustery weather, but Sugarloaf officials later deemed it safe to operate before the accident at 10.30am local time, Mr Austin said.

A website dedicated to Sugarloaf’s master plan said the first priority for lifts was to replace the twin east and west spillway lifts with a larger quad lift, partly because of vulnerability to the wind.

The Bangor Daily News previously quoted John Diller, Sugarloaf’s general manager, as saying he hoped this would be the last winter for the lift. “A fixed-grip quad will provide faster and more reliable transportation for skiers and, due to its additional weight, will be significantly less prone to wind holds than the current lift,” the website said.

The lift was properly licensed and inspected for 2010, said Doug Dunbar of Maine Department of Professional and Financial Regulation.

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