CARRABASSETT VALLEY, Maine — 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 happened just days before the resort is to host the U.S. Alpine Championships starting Tuesday, with celebrity skiers like Lindsey Vonn and Mikaela Shiffrin set to compete there.
Four people were taken to a hospital from Sugarloaf Mountain Resort, 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.
The accident was is the second chairlift incident at Sugarloaf in five years. In 2010, eight skiers were hurt when one of its chairlifts derailed, causing five chairs to fall 25 to 35 feet to the ground.
Sugarloaf officials said Saturday’s accident was a “rollback” that carried riders backward a distance of about 450 feet.
Mark Di Nola, a ski safety consultant based in Manchester, New Hampshire, said it’s unusual to have two lift accidents of this magnitude in five years, and such a “rollback” is rare in the ski industry.
“The industry is aware of issues involved in the continued use of aging ski lifts, in this case 37 years. Analogous to our country’s aging infrastructure of roads and bridges,” he said in an emailed statement.
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, Segre said.
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, a process that took about two hours.
The 3,400-foot chairlift receives routine daily inspections for safety, Austin said. It passed state inspection on Oct. 29.
“Our staff is working with the Tramway Board on a thorough investigation, and we are committed to understanding the full cause of today’s incident,” he said. An inspector from State of Maine Board of Elevator and Tramway Safety was on site.