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Sugarloaf Mountain: How common are serious ski lift accidents?

Sugarloaf Mountain had a ski lift derail Tuesday. But major ski-lift mishaps like the one at Sugarloaf accident are rare. The most recent ski-lift fatality was in 1993.

By Staff writer / December 28, 2010

A snowboarder makes his way down Sugarloaf Mountain in Carrabassett, Maine, in this Oct. 25, 2005, file photo released by Sugarloaf USA. An official at the ski area said Tuesday that there are injuries after a ski lift accident at the resort.

Sugarloaf USA/AP/file

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The ski-lift accident at Maine’s Sugarloaf Mountain Tuesday morning is the sort of incident that can convince an already timid skier never to sit on a lift again.

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Five chairs fell 25 to 30 feet to the ground when a cable derailed, injuring at least six people. None of the injuries are believed to be life-threatening. The estimated 220 people remaining on the lift were stranded for several hours amid wind gusts of 30 to 50 m.p.h. as the resort’s ski patrol scrambled to evacuate them, using a pulley system to lower skiers to the ground.

By mid-afternoon, the causes of the Sugarloaf accident were still unknown.

But lift incidents – particularly ones involving actual derailment or falling chairs – are extremely rare.

“It’s a complete freak accident,” says Troy Hawks, a spokesman for the National Ski Areas Association (NSAA). “Our long-term data shows it’s far more dangerous to drive than to ride a chairlift.”

The NSAA doesn’t track lift incidents – like this one – that don’t involve fatalities, though Mr. Hawks says they’re exceedingly rare. But since 1973, there have been 12 deaths attributed to ski-lift malfunctions in the US – a period of time that included more than 14 billion lift rides.

In other words, if a skier were to ride a chairlift 100 million miles, he would have a 0.17 percent chance of being killed. By contrast, the death rate for motor vehicles is 1.33 for every 100 million vehicle-miles, Hawks says.

The most recent US lift fatality was in 1993, when a detachable quad lift at Sierra Ski Ranch in California failed and one person was killed. The two worst incidents, both involving four deaths, occurred in the 1970s, with accidents at Vail and Squaw Valley.

At Sugarloaf, this is the first time an accident like this has happened.

The lift is a two-passenger monocable fixed-grip chair that was installed in 1975 and was modified in 1983. It is inspected daily for safety, according to a statement from Sugarloaf, and receives weekly, monthly, and yearly maintenance and testing, along with a yearly safety inspection from the Maine Board of Elevator and Tramway Safety. That board is sending two people to the mountain to investigate the accident.

All passengers were successfully evacuated from the lift by the afternoon, and the mountain was working to figure out what happened.

"Sugarloaf Mountain and its employees are concerned for the people involved, [and] the resort [would] like to express gratitude to all the safety personnel that have responded to this incident," the resort said in a statement. "Sugarloaf Mountain is absolutely committed to the safety of its guests and employees."

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