By DAN HEATH
WILMINGTON — A chairlift derailment forced Whiteface personnel to evacuate 47 skiers and snowboarders from the lift late Saturday afternoon.
Today, ORDA Director of Communications Sandy Caligiore said one person complained of a sore thumb after the event, but there were no other injuries.
“We have staff that rehearse this every year,” he said. “There are procedures in place and they were followed to a T.”
The evacuation process involves running a rope from the ground to the person to be evacuated. The evacuee puts on a harness and is slowly but steadily lowered to the ground directly under the chair, with the rescuer on the ground able to control the descent.
The accident happened at about 3:20 p.m., 10 minutes before the lift closes each day. The lift closes earlier than the other lifts at Whiteface to give Ski Patrol members enough time to sweep the mountain before it gets dark.
In a press release, Whiteface Mountain Manager Jay Rand said all skiers and riders were off the lift by 5:20 p.m. and in the base lodge by 6 p.m. Once there, they were given complimentary food and warm drinks, Caligiore said.
Skiers and riders who were lowered before dark opted to proceed to the base area on their own or with a guide, while those who were lowered after dark were brought to the base area by snow cats.
Caligiore said two eyewitnesses on the lift reported a gust of wind caused a communication cable and a descending (empty) chair to become locked together. That caused the cable supporting the chair to jump off one of the rollers at the adjacent lift tower, which automatically shuts down the lift.
The Summit Quad reaches an elevation of 4,386 feet and serves intermediate and expert terrain. The derailment happened about two-thirds of the way up the lift, Caligiore said.
Rand said 80 Whiteface staff members were involved, including those who lowered guests to the ground. Administrators, marketing, concessions, Ski Patrol, Host Patrol and Snowsports School staff assisted in getting everyone safely off the mountain and providing care once they were.
“This was a real team effort. All of our departments came together,” Caligiore said. “They made this as seamless a procedure as could be expected.”
He said temperatures were in the 20s and winds were calm while he was skiing until about 12:15 p.m.
“The elements could’ve really worked against us. It could’ve been 10 degrees below zero or a 30 below wind chill,” Caligiore said.
He described it as a freak accident.
“Generally, if there’s a strong wind, we don’t run that lift,” Caligiore said. “For an odd gust to come out of nowhere, that’s just a crapshoot.”
He said this was the first lift derailment at Whiteface in his memory. He said the lift would remain closed for at least a few days as repairs are made, but hopefully would be running again by mid-week or the end of next week.
Caligiore said numbers were good at the mountain Sunday, as they have been throughout the holidays.
“Nobody seems daunted by what occurred,” he said.
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