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Wind a factor in Maine ski lift accident

This photo provided by Betsy Twombly shows a

This photo provided by Betsy Twombly shows a skier being helped down from a lift chair, center, after a lift derailed on the state's tallest ski mountain at the Sugarloaf resort in Carrabassett Valley, Maine. (Dec. 28, 2010) Photo Credit: AP

CARRABASSETT VALLEY, Maine - High wind contributed to a chair lift accident at a Maine ski area that sent skiers plummeting 25 to 30 feet, injuring eight and trapping others for more than an hour, investigators said Wednesday, but they’re not ruling out other factors.

The inspectors from the Maine Board of Elevator and Tramway Safety “are committed to a thorough process,” Doug Dunbar, a spokesman for the agency that oversees the board, said in a statement.

The lift, which recently passed an inspection, was due to be replaced, possibly next summer, and was known to be vulnerable to wind, the Sugarloaf resort said Tuesday after the double-chair lift’s cable derailed. Resort spokesman Ethan Austin did not say Wednesday whether mechanical difficulties were also an issue.

At least two skiers said a Sugarloaf worker was atop the tower where the cable derailed, though that could have been a coincidence. The lift was properly licensed and inspected for 2010, Dunbar said.

Before the accident Tuesday, the damaged 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 10:30 a.m., Austin said. Guidelines for wind holds include wind speed and other factors, he said.

Wind gusts of 40 mph were reported around Sugarloaf before the accident on the lift, which was built in 1975 and set for upgrades or replacement. But one skier who fell the 25 to 30 feet to the new-fallen snow below said she didn’t remember it being exceptionally windy.

“Maybe it was a small factor, but I don’t think that it was a giant factor because I know the mountain wouldn’t have opened the lift if it wasn’t safe,” Rebecca London told ABC’s “Good Morning America.” “And I also have been on that chair lift in higher winds,” she said. “I don’t remember it being outrageously high winds yesterday.”

Another skier, Jeff Howard, 54, of Buxton, said he heard a creaking sound on one of the lift’s wheels while he was skiing Monday. He said he wasn’t alarmed about it at the time, but it came to mind after he heard about the lift collapse.

On Wednesday, he said he doubted the accident would scare away skiers.

“Sugarloafers are a hardy bunch,” he said.

It’s unclear when the investigation will be finished, Austin said. “But pending further investigation, they’ve determined that wind was a primary factor,” he said.

Eight people, including three children, were taken to hospitals after the double-chair lift derailed during a busy vacation week at the resort 120 miles north of Portland. Five chairs fell to the ground, and dozens of skiers were stuck on the crippled lift for more than an hour until the ski patrol could get them down.

Six were either treated and released or discharged from Franklin Memorial Hospital in Farmington as of Wednesday, said hospital spokeswoman Jill Gray. Two others were transferred to Maine Medical Center in Portland, she said, but a spokeswoman there declined to confirm whether the hospital was treating them.

The lift is 4,013 feet long, gains 1,454 feet of elevation and nearly reaches the summit of 4,327-foot Sugarloaf, the state’s second-tallest mountain.

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. John Diller, Sugarloaf’s general manager, had previously told The Bangor Daily News that 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.

Sugarloaf assured visitors that its lifts are inspected each day.

“We haven’t had a derailment of this magnitude in the 60 years Sugarloaf has been in operation,” said Richard Wilkinson, vice president for mountain operations.

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