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As several skiers recover in hospitals from their terrifying plunge to the slope far below, investigators hope to determine whether wind, a mechanical glitch or some combination of both caused a resort's chair lift to jump its track and collapse.
Wind gusts of 40 mph were reported around the Sugarloaf resort before Tuesday's accident on the lift, which was built in 1975 and set for upgrades or replacement. But one skier who fell the 25 to 30 feet to the new-fallen snow below said she didn't remember it being exceptionally windy.
"I mean maybe it was a small factor, but I don't think that it was a giant factor because I know the mountain woundn't have opened the lift if it wasn't safe," Rebecca London told ABC's "Good Morning America."
"And I also have been on that chairlift in higher winds," she told ABC. "I don't remember it being outrageously high winds yesterday."
London, of Carrabassett Valley, told The Associated Press on Tuesday that the ungroomed snow below - the resort had gotten up to 22 inches a day earlier - cushioned her landing and kept her from serious injury. Her goggles protected her face where it hit the chair's retaining bar.
At least eight people - including three children - were taken to hospitals after the double-chair lift derailed during a busy vacation week at the popular resort 120 miles north of Portland. Only five chairs fell to the ground, but dozens of skiers remained on the crippled lift for more than an hour until the ski patrol could get them down.
Inspectors from the state Board of Elevator and Tramway Safety are probing the cause. The resort said the lift, which recently passed an inspection, was due to be replaced - possibly as early as summer - partly because of vulnerability to wind.
Jay Marshall, who was on the lift next to the one that broke, said there was a worker atop the tower where the lift's cable derailed, but he noted that could have been a coincidence. It's not uncommon to see workers on the lift towers, he said.
Marshall said his lift was moving but the other was not. There was a "loud snapping noise" after the lift restarted, he said, then some screams.
"The next thing I know, it was bouncing up and down like a yo-yo," said Marshall, of Carrabassett Valley. He said it was too difficult to watch, so he looked away.
"It was terrifying," he said.
All told, there were about 150 skiers on the lift at the time, according to Sugarloaf, operated by Boyne Falls, Mich.-based Boyne Resorts. Sugarloaf workers used a pulley-like system to lower skiers to safety.
Eight people were taken 35 miles to Franklin Memorial Hospital in Farmington, said Gerald Cayer, the hospital's executive vice president. Two of them were transferred to Maine Medical Center in Portland, Cayer said.
The lift is 4,013 feet long, gains 1,454 feet of elevation and nearly reaches the summit of 4,327-foot Sugarloaf, the state's second-tallest mountain. It went into service in 1975 and was modified in 1983, according to Sugarloaf officials.
That 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 before the accident at 10:30 a.m., Sugarloaf spokesman Ethan Austin said. Guidelines for "wind holds" include wind speed and other factors, he said.
A website dedicated to Sugarloaf's master plan said the first priority for lifts was to replace the twin east and west spillway lifts with a larger quad lift, partly because of vulnerability to the wind. The Bangor Daily News previously quoted John Diller, Sugarloaf's general manager, as saying he hoped this would be the last winter for the lift.
"A fixed-grip quad will provide faster and more reliable transportation for skiers and, due to its additional weight, will be significantly less prone to wind holds than the current lift," the website said.
Sugarloaf assured visitors that its lifts are inspected each day.
"We haven't had a derailment of this magnitude in the 60 years Sugarloaf has been in operation," said Richard Wilkinson, vice president for mountain operations.
The lift was properly licensed and inspected for 2010, said Doug Dunbar of Maine Department of Professional and Financial Regulation.
This program aired on December 29, 2010. The audio for this program is not available.
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