Under the cover of wildfire smoke blanketing the Squamish area, the Sea to Sky Gondola's cable was cut yet again in the early morning hours of Sept 14.
"[It’s] almost the exact same situation as last year," the Gondola’s general manager Kirby Brown said referring to the vandalism of the attraction on Aug 10, 2019—which resulted in cabins crashing to the ground from a severed cable in the middle of the night.
"An individual climbed the tower [Sept.14] with the right tool with great speed and cut through the cable and brought the system down."
Sea to Sky Gondola general manager Kirby Brown at the press conference Monday morning, just hours after the gondola cable was cut for a second time. Photo: KIRBY BROWN
When officials at Whistler Blackcomb (WB) heard of the incident they immediately reached out, said Marc Riddell, WB's director of communications, West Coast.
"The team at Whistler Blackcomb would like extend our support to the management and staff of the Sea to Sky Gondola as they manage through this difficult time," said Riddell in an emailed statement.
"In response to the incident at the Sea to Sky Gondola, Whistler Blackcomb has inspected our lifts and can confirm they are in working order.
"As a matter of routine, a pre-operational inspection is always conducted prior to opening. We are vigilant in upholding our robust lift safety standards and practices."
Asked about risk to other attractions with gondolas Squamish RCMP Sgt. Sascha Banks said she could not comment.
Police say they received word of the Sea to Sky Gondola incident at around 4 a.m.
It's clear from this incident that more physical protections need to be put in place, Brown said.
"We didn't want to militarize the base of the towers, but those are now steps that we're going to have to contemplate," he said.
"We are going to take additional measures regardless of what comes out of that analysis."
At a press briefing, Banks said the severing of the cable during this incident was deliberate.
The RCMP is asking anyone who saw anything suspicious at all at about 4 a.m., or knows anything about the vandalism, to call. Banks is also asking anyone who knows of, or has seen, a note or manifesto explaining the vandalism to reach out RCMP.
"The investigation from last year is still ongoing," she said, but added it was too early to definitively say there is a link between the two incidents.
"I live in Squamish and it is disheartening to see this happen again in our community."
The heavy smoke drifting across B.C. from raging wildfires across the border in the U.S., has forced the RCMP to search the area under investigation on foot.
When asked whether she was concerned about the possibility of a future attack on the gondola while it is running during day time operations—should it get up and running again—Banks said: "That is always obviously always a thought.
"These are questions that need to be answered when the time comes."
She noted that a few weeks ago two people were caught climbing a gondola tower, setting off alarms. However, at the time, police didn't consider it a sabotage attempt, because the people who scaled the tower did not have any tools or means to damage the structure.
"We've identified who they are, and, at that point in time, we didn't deem them to be somebody who was up there at a risk of cutting the gondola," said Banks, adding that given what has happened the RCMP will be looking into this incident.
As soon as police were alerted to the vandalism action was taken.
Squamish local Kevin Conway was on his way to the ferry at 4:30 a.m. this morning and was stopped by a police officer at Sunset Marina. The officer asked where he was going and where he lived, Conway said.
Police were stopping everyone who was driving south, he said.
"[The officer] cut the one lane off so you had to go by him," Conway added.
The officer checked the backseat, as well.
When Conway, who was heading to work in a forestry camp on Vancouver Island, got on the ferry to Departure Bay, he saw the news online.
"I couldn't believe it," he said.
The associate director of SFU's school of criminology speculated that the incident could be an act of protest.
"It feels like a fairly exotic and purposeful action and because it is associated with a landmark—people could be using that as a symbol to protest the way we're using that space," said criminologist Bryan Kinney, who added he thought there would be an accompanying note or manifesto if it were meant to send a message about the gondola.
"Usually when those kinds of protests are being made, they are usually accompanied by some kind of... broadcasting of the reason," he said. "It sounds like destruction for destruction's sake, unless it is accompanied by some kind of statement about people not agreeing with having [the land] accessed that way. That is what is strange to me."
Last year, on Aug. 10, 2019, workers arrived in the early morning at the Squamish Gondola to discover the gondola’s cable cut and on the ground, along with most of the cabins. The RCMP has been investigating since.
Brown said that the company is still working out numbers with insurance, but the 2019 incident cost upwards of $5 million.
He didn't say if there was any indication that it was the same perpetrator as last year, but noted that the crime was repeated in what appeared to be a proficient manner.
"You can draw your own conclusion on that one," he said. "He certainly knew when and how to do it."
There is an image from security cameras, Brown said, adding the RCMP has much more to work with this time around.
Brown said that no one was hurt in the latest incident, or in the one last year.
"We'll be back. We are not going to let one person keep us down," said Brown.
As of now, the area is being treated as a crime scene.
At a press briefing Monday morning, Brown said that he believed the gondola would have the resources needed to get on its feet again.
"I have complete confidence that we will have the resources we need to rebuild and get back into business," he said. "The insurance marketplace this year is tough, so insurance will be ever more expensive until this person is caught, but we have nothing but a great relationship with the insurers we work with. So that's not my concern. Rebuilding safely is my concern."
The extent of the damage
There are 39 passenger-carrying cabins. Only six are expected to be undamaged.
"The downhill cable is where it was cut. That's above Tower 6," Brown explained.
"The uphill cable is actually still on the lift line. So that's very similar to last year. We have three cabins in the station at the bottom, and three at the top, we assume that most of the others will be lost."
The cabins are usually suspended between 20 to 300 metres above the ground, depending on where they are on the line.
But it's unclear what distance the cabins fell, because in some areas the cable may have stayed on the towers.
The method used to cut the gondola this time, like the last time, can only be done when the gondola is closed and the lift is turned off, he said.
This cable rope may be recoverable as it is brand new, said Brown. The previous rope was replaced completely because it was two years away from its end-of-life.
The lift team will be doing a detailed investigation, he said.
"These are unique and incredibly rare events, so to have it happen twice speaks more to the motivation of the person who wants to bring this team, this company and this community to its knees — and that's not going to happen," said Brown.
"We are on our feet and we are working to get back open to re-instill consumer confidence."
"We will get new cabins. We will rebuild. We will put physical protections in addition to this incredible security system to protect against that bad actor."
Squamish mayor reacts
Squamish Mayor Karen Elliott reiterated that RCMP officers have been on site since the early morning hours and added that resources including the Integrated Police Dog Services, and West Vancouver Police Department, and more will be called as required as the investigation goes on.
"There are so many emotions we're feeling as a result of this second act of vandalism," said Elliott. "Certainly, we are shocked, saddened and extremely concerned to hear this news this morning. Our hearts go out to the Sea to Sky Gondola team, who are such an important and valuable part of our community. We are so thankful that, once again, no-one was on the gondola when this happened.”
Edward H. Taylor, associate dean with the Faculty of Health and Social Development at UBC's Okanagan Campus said while he wouldn't be able to define this as terrorism legally or academically, it certainly could be terrorizing for people.
"We can think of it [as] terrorism in the sense that it is terrorizing to people who routinely use the facility who start to worry that it is safe to participate. That is a form of certainly impact on the community that feels like terrorism," he said.
"The big thing is that it has a psychological point of view of making the community have hesitancy in participating in things that generally don't carry risk, but carry a minimal kind of risk—the cable could… accidentally break, but people have faith that it is not going to, but then when you have this kind of sabotage, it causes people to have second thoughts of whether it is safe.
"It can start to create imaginary fears that are not only connected with the fact of wondering what the intent of the person is and the danger and, 'What if I was up in this and it broke?' It shows vulnerability and that is always frightening to community people and that causes people to withdraw and that is one of the last things we want to happen in a community."
But the good news is that people, communities and businesses are resilient, Taylor said.
"All of the research shows that with a short period of time… that people will rebound back to full use of the facility," he said. "We aren't talking about tomorrow; we are talking about enough time passing. But generally, I think you will find that the research shows that people come back."
"Life will renormalize itself in a relatively short period of time."
Anyone with any information about the gondola sabotage is asked to contact the Squamish RCMP at 604-892-6100 or contact Crime Stoppers at 1-800-222-TIPS, or go to the website www.solvecrime.ca.
This story originally appeared here.