A chairlift at a Maine ski resort stopped and then began sliding backward down the mountain Saturday, prompting frantic riders to jump off and injuring seven, officials and witnesses said.
The accident at Sugarloaf Mountain Resort happened five years after eight skiers were hurt when one of its chairlifts derailed, causing five chairs to fall 25 to 35 feet to the ground.
Three people were taken to a hospital for treatment Saturday, though none are believed to have life-threatening injuries, resort spokesman Ethan Austin said.
“It was really scary,” said David Segre, 42, of Falmouth, who was standing in the crowded lift line. “It was like a gear had let loose and it was slowly picking up speed going the wrong way.”
“So all the chairs … they were slipping backward. And as gravity works they started to go faster and faster and people were jumping off at the lower levels,” he said.
Segre estimated that the lift went the wrong way for about a minute, traveling about 200 or 300 yards, before it stopped. One man who wasn’t able to jump off ended up going around the loading area and heading up the mountain on the other side, he said.
Susan Haws Clifford said she and her daughter managed to jump off the chairlift unharmed.
“My daughter and I were on the lift when it started heading backwards really fast,” Clifford told WMTW on Facebook. “We were able to unbind our skis and jump off uninjured.”
The injured were treated by ski patrol and taken off the mountain for treatment by emergency medical responders, Austin said.
About 230 people were riding the King Pine quad lift at the time of the accident, officials said. Those still on board after the lift was stopped were evacuated.
An inspector from State of Maine Board of Elevator and Tramway Safety was investigating the chairlift malfunction. The chairlift receives routine daily inspections for safety, Austin said.
The resort is hosting the U.S. national ski championships starting this week with top skiers like Lindsey Vonn and Mikaela Shiffrin.
The ski industry points out that riding a chairlift is safer than riding an elevator, and there has not been a death due to mechanical malfunction since 1973.
But there have been at least four other malfunctions causing injury since 2000 nationwide, according to the National Ski Areas Association, but the ages of those lifts were unknown.
At Sugarloaf, the December 2010 incident involved a 35-year-old double chairlift – since replaced – that was being worked on while skiers were on board. Saturday’s incident involved a 27-year-old quad chairlift.
The King Pine lift that malfunctioned over the weekend had passed its annual state inspection and a dynamic load test that’s required every seven years last fall, said Sugarloaf spokesman Ethan Austin.
Older lifts aren’t necessarily unsafe if they’re properly maintained, but they become functionally obsolete because skiers reject them as too slow and as they become too expensive to maintain.
“Lifts aren’t designed to last forever,” said Mark Di Nola, a ski safety consultant in New Hampshire who serves as an expert witness in ski-related lawsuits.
Steve Kircher, president of eastern operations for Boyne Resorts, which operates Sugarloaf, took exception to the notion that aging chairlifts lifts are problematic.
“Having literally grown up in the ski industry, I can tell you that age of equipment generally does not translate into higher risk. There are lifts operating successfully all over the world that are considerably older than King Pine. I’ve also been around long enough to know that new lifts can have mechanical issues,” he said.
The incident has not shaken the confidence of the U.S. Ski and Snowboarding Association as Sugarloaf prepares to host the national championships.
“We have been in touch with Sugarloaf. The lift in question has no impact on our event. We are confident in Sugarloaf’s ability to conduct our U.S. Championships,” spokesman Tom Kelly said.
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