CARRABASSETT VALLEY, Maine (AP) - High wind contributed to a chair lift accident at the Sugarloaf ski area that caused skiers to plummet 25 to 30 feet, sending eight to hospitals and stranding others for more than an hour, state investigators said Wednesday, but they're not ruling out other factors.
The 35-year-old lift, which recently passed an inspection, was due to be replaced, possibly next summer, and was known to be vulnerable to wind long before its cable derailed Tuesday.
Resort spokesman Ethan Austin also said Wednesday that wind played a role, but he didn't rule out mechanical difficulties or other causes. 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, officials 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. Wind gusts of 40 mph were reported around Sugarloaf before the accident on the aging lift.
On Wednesday, the ski resort's parking lots were full, and the slopes were crowded.
The damaged lift remained out of commission, with part of its cable and several chairs still on the snow where they fell, as state inspectors and Sugarloaf workers went about their investigation.
Skiers and snowboarders agreed that it had been windy on Tuesday, a day after a blizzard whipped most of the state before blowing out to sea. But many of them disagreed over whether the wind was above and beyond what's normally seen on Sugarloaf, the state's tallest ski mountain.
"Yeah, it was windy. It didn't keep me from coming up here," Chuck Tetreau, a snowboarder from North Yarmouth, said after making a run Wednesday.
In Maine, ski resort lifts are overseen by the Maine Board of Elevator and Tramway Safety, whose inspectors are investigating the accident. Annual inspections are the responsibility of the ski resorts, but the state licenses the inspectors.
Nationwide, there's no federal oversight of ski lifts, and inspection rules and procedures vary from state to state, said Troy Hawks of the National Ski Areas Association.
Deadly lift accidents are relatively are. Since 1973, lift accidents have killed 12 people, including one in 1976 that killed four people in Vail, Colo., and another in 1978 in Squaw Valley, Calif., that also killed four people, according to the Colorado-based organization.
In Maine, no one was killed but eight people, including three children, were taken to hospitals. Five chairs and the skiers in them plunged onto the ski trail below, and dozens more skiers were stuck on the crippled lift for more than an hour until the ski patrol could get them down.
Six of the injured skiers had been released from Franklin Memorial Hospital 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 resort had targeted the lift for replacement under a 10-year plan. Sugarloaf's general manager publicly stated he wanted this to be its last winter, partly because of vulnerability to wind.