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 said it couldn't determine exactly what caused the accident that sent eight skiers to the hospital on Dec. 28.
But investigators said primary factors that could've played a role included high winds and problems with maintenance, procedures and components. It also noted that a technician had to manually hit a button afterward to stop the lift from moving after a safety mechanism failed to work as intended.
"Interactions involving mechanical components, the environment and human factors are all believed to have contributed," the report said.
Sugarloaf General Manager John Diller said the ski resort has made changes to improve maintenance procedures to ensure the safety of skiers and employees.
"After the incident, we conducted a thorough review of our lift maintenance procedures, internally and with outside experts, and instituted several changes. These include new standardized and formalized processes for training our lift maintenance personnel, and new, standardized record keeping procedures," he said.
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.
Spillway East, a double-chair lift, was known to be 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.
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. Lack of a maintenance manual made it impossible to determine if all procedures had been followed, the investigators said.
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.
One of the injured skiers, Andy Tonge of Belgrade, said he was disappointed that the resort where he's been skiing for 50 years didn't do more to protect skiers.
"You've got another black eye for corporate America here," said Tonge, an investment adviser who was on the lift with his son, a graduate student at John Hopkins University, when the lift plunged. "Everyone lets their kids go free on this mountain. It's supposed to be safe."
The lift was properly inspected and licensed by the state. The Board of Elevator and Tramway Safety will review the report's conclusions before determining whether existing regulations are adequate or if regulatory changes are needed, said spokesman Doug Dunbar.