Lessons for everyone
Lift report ripples through industry
By Chris Woodall
Recommendations from the coroner's report on the Quicksilver lift tragedy rippled through the industry within days of its release.
Some steps toward preventing a similar fatal accident had been implemented well in advance of the coroner's report. Other suggestions in the report are being carefully studied for implementation by industry players, such as the B.C. government ministry that certifies lifts, lift manufacturers and the ski areas that operate lifts.
One person died, Dec. 23, 1995, when the Quicksilver chair on Whistler Mountain stopped suddenly and four chairs skidded off the rope. Another man died later as a result of injuries sustained in the accident. A third man was left paralyzed. Coroner Peter Gordon’s report examined all causes and recommended remedial actions.
Two recommendations directed at Whistler Mountain touched on its internal communications and its handling of the accident. The report noted that lift operations and lift maintenance functions were reporting to separate streams of management. The report said better communication links might have resolved problems with the lift sooner.
But the coroner's information on this point was outdated, says Whistler Mountain Ski Corporation President Doug Forseth.
"We had already been aware of the communications problems after the 1994-95 ski season," Forseth says, referring to employee suggestions that pointed to the issue.
The coroner's report was based on information from a Whistler Mountain employee who left the company before the changes were made, Forseth says.
Until the 1994-95 season, lift operations and lift maintenance reported to different managers, who also reported to different general managers.
Whistler Mountain resolved that issue during the off-season by combining the operations and maintenance general manager positions into one. That one person reports directly to Forseth.
The coroner's second major concern was the evacuation of skiers during the multi-casualty accident. The report specifically noted that the mountain did not set 911 emergency procedures in motion quickly enough; could have better handled communications and provisions with skiers stranded on other chairs.
"There's no question" things could have been done better, Forseth says. "We had no experience with evacuation of a multi-casualty accident before the Quicksilver tragedy."
Lessons from it have been learned and remedies set in place.
The 911 number was not called immediately because of the "flurry of activity" by Whistler Mountain staff reacting to the first information they had about the accident, Forseth says.
"No one had ever seen something of this magnitude," Forseth explains. "Until we got to the scene, it was hard to imagine the scale of it.
"Now 911 is a check off point of our emergency procedures," Forseth says. "If there's any question if we need to call them, we call them."
To ensure skiers stranded on a chair have some protection from the elements, a cache of blankets has been stored at the base of the valley lifts. Forseth praised the quickness and number of people in the community who came to the accident scene with their own blankets and willingness to help.
Another issue was having adequate lighting.
The accident occurred at the end of a ski day with the fewest daylight hours of the year. It was dark shortly after the accident happened.
"We tried to move as many cats (snow grooming machines) in place as possible to position them to shine their headlights on the scene," Forseth explains. The mountain now has additional emergency electrical generators and lights.
Forseth disagrees, however, with the coroner's conclusion that collecting names of evacuated skiers should be done at the base of the mountain.
"I agree we need to be sure it's done, but we need to get their names as soon as they get off the chair," Forseth says. "Skiers will scatter" to the many ski in/ski out slopes in a similar situation and would be missed.
Keeping stranded skiers informed at all times is another spot for improvement.
"We'd started that process, but where we fell down was in not keeping it up," Forseth says. "We didn't anticipate it would take so long" to conclude the evacuation.
Height of the chairs from the ground and awkward locations also hampered ground-to-chair communication.
"We've added bullhorns to our emergency inventory," Forseth says.
Whistler Mountain brought in an emergency response expert to meet with its safety department and ski patrollers to incorporate other aspects of the coroner's report.
"The emergency expert is scheduled to return prior to opening day to address our whole group of professionals and volunteers," Forseth says.
As for the failure of the chairlift grips to keep the chair in place, the Quicksilver, manufactured by Lift Engineering, has already been replaced with a new gondola manufactured by Poma of America.
As for the Redline and Green chair lifts that used the YAN 7 grip system — the Quicksilver was a YAN 11 system — their grips are being replaced by a brand new design that must pass a rigorous series of tests.
"We'd had a sense that we would need to change that system, so back in March we decided to pursue this remedy," Forseth says. "We put together a team to design new grips to 'airplane quality'."
Each grip was X-rayed after it was cast and before it was machined, for example, to reveal any flaws. "Any faults at all and it was discarded," Forseth says.
"A lab was set up this past week (at the end of October) to do 'pluck tests' of the grips for the Redline and Green chairs," Forseth says.
The pluck test requires a grip to hold with up to 3,500 pounds pulling on it. Forseth says the new grips held up to pulls of 5,000 pounds. "They started to tear apart the wire rope" rather than come off, he says.
Over at Blackcomb Mountain, director of marketing David Barry says the corporation has been studying the coroner's report, but says the incident is too delicate for his company to comment on further.
The coroner's report is also of concern to major lift manufacturers.
"We are going through the concerns in the report carefully," says Doppelmayr of Western Canada President Georg Schurian. It will also be examined at the lift company's head office in Austria.
Doppelmayr has 90 of its high-speed quad lifts operating in North America and is building more at resorts keen to replace Lift Engineering lifts with the YAN grips, Schurian says.
The coroner’s report also suggests that the engineer overseeing construction of a lift shouldn't be an employee of the company building the lift. One reason given why this happens has been the small number of engineers available who are experts in chair lift design.
Schurian doesn't buy that. "We've never done in-house approvals. We always have a third party review our designs and all the technical and field engineering to ensure a top-notch system."
Although confident of his company's lift systems, "if we can learn something from that report, we'll be sure to comply and do an even better job," Schurian says.
The provincial ministry responsible for inspecting B.C.'s ski lifts is taking note of the coroner's report, too.
"It's too early to respond to the recommendations of the coroner, but we have started on that process," says Juliette Proom, speaking on behalf of the engineering and inspection branch, Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing.
Indeed, Municipal Affairs Minister Dan Miller announced several slight changes the same day the report came out.
The ministry is set to hire two additional inspectors, tighten safety regulations for detachable-grip ski lifts; support improved national safety standards; and pay closer attention to the changing technologies, expectations and service demands of new lifts.
Inspectors visit each lift at least once a year, Proom says. The schedule is altered each year and consists of a visit in and out of the ski season.
There are 224 ski lifts at 60 locations in B.C., Proom says. Staff made 450 inspections during one year and issued 2,175 directions.
Other than that, the ministry is confident its inspection procedures are sufficient.
The coroner — like everybody else on the planet these days — also wants to make use of the Internet. In his case, Gordon suggests it be used as a means for ski lift industry parties to share the latest information on lift design and safety issues.
"It’s an intriguing idea, but it’s too early to say we’d be interested in participating in that," Proom says.