|The Whistler Accident
|Article courtesy of Market Place
On December 23, 1995 two people died and ten others were injured at Whistler
Mountain ski resort in British Columbia when four of the chairs on a ski-lift
crashed to the ground. The operators of the resort say there are very few
accidents involving ski-lifts, and the industry's safety record is a good one. But a
Market Place investigation discovered that the type of lift system used at Whistler
was badly designed, and had a troubled track record. The program also raises
questions about what's been done to correct the problems.
Whistler Mountain in British Columbia is a mecca for skiers and snow boarders
all over. It is a world class resort that is proud of its international appeal. Three
top ski magazines just voted Whistler the top ski hill on the continent. They talked
about a virtuoso symphony of sheer size, vertical drops, and fast lifts plus half a
line mentioning a fatal accident "caused by a manufacturer's faulty design."
On December 23, 1995, as skiers rode the Quicksilver lift down the mountain,
the chairs began bouncing around and swinging wildly. Four chairs fell and ten
people plunged 20 stories. Eight were injured, and two were killed. Every ski
patroller on the mountain was summoned to this code three emergency. Terrified
skiers were trapped for three hours on the Quicksilver chair lift. One hundred and
seventy people were rescued.
It was the worst accident ever for an industry that prides itself on its safety record.
In nearby Squamish, the local coroner was called in to investigate what went
wrong. When he arrived, he didn't see a lot of broken pieces of chair lift on the
ground or towers toppled over. So they had to search for other causes.
High speed chair lifts whisk skiers up the mountain at 15 feet a second, 3,000
skiers an hour. The key to a safe ride is overhead. The metal grip holds the
moving chair to the cable. It works like a spring loaded clothes pin, opening to
release the chair so it can slow down to let skiers on and off. It is called a
detachable grip. As it rounds the bend, the grip reattaches for the ride down the
The day of the accident, the operator had stopped the lift to let someone who had
fallen in front of the chair get out of the way - usually a normal stop but this time it
wasn't. Instead the emergency brake kicked in. The rope was suddenly pulled to
a stop causing a waving action. The emergency stop jolted the chairs with such
force that a grip peeled off the cable. That chair slid down colliding with the next
chair and fell. Then the fatal chain reaction occurred, three chairs hit the tower
The coroner confirmed what some lift operators at the Quicksilver suspected. It
was riddled with problems from day one. Problems that came together the night
of the accident starting with the faulty break system.
Market Place obtained documents under the freedom of information act that
proved Whistler knew about the faulty brake system from the day it was installed.
A British Columbian government memo quotes the Whistler maintenance manager
- he categorized it as a non-issue. But the BC coroner called it a violation of the
national safety code contributing to the accident.
Nicks and scars on the upper part of the towers tipped Whistler off to another
serious problem with the lift. The upper parts of the chairs were colliding with the
overhead wheels. By law the chairs must not hit anything within a 15 degree swing
radius. Whistler's president says that they believed they were complying with the
code. They got permission from the BC Inspection Branch to operate and the
manufacturer's engineer had given documents to the government stating that they
were meeting code. But on January 4, 1992, Whistler faxed a BC government
inspector about the swinging chairs stating the 15 degree criteria wouldn't be met.
Almost four years later that became a key cause of the fatal accident. A problem
that the coroner reports was never fixed.
By the end of the first ski season, the growing number of problems with the ski lift
prompted the manager of Whistler maintenance to write the manufacturer, Lift
Engineering, stating that they had become the "unwitting recipients of a research
and development project."
The BC government gave Whistler the green light to operate Quicksilver on the
condition that they provide important metal fatigue test results on the grips. A year
later there was still nothing from the manufacturer and the lift continued to
operate. When the test for grip force appeared, the grips were slipping. Whistler
management wrote the manufacturer again wondering why they were not
informed that the grips failed to meet code. Then there was a ten day government
shut down for the first major retrofit of the grips. More problems with slipping
lead to a second unsuccessful retrofit. Three weeks before the fatal accident
Whistler rebuilt all of the grips. After the accident, the coroner tested 29 grips in
the lab, all failed.
There are alarms to detect safety problems. If there is something wrong with the
chair as it leaves the station, the grip force alarm goes off. It is standard
equipment. At Quicksilver, one was constantly misfiring going off twenty times a
day, so loud that skiers could hear. Paper was stuffed in it to quiet it down.
The president of Whistler believes that the BC government would not have
allowed them to operate if it wasn't safe. But the government relied on Whistler to
fix the lift. Whistler relied on the engineer who certified the lift who was on the
payroll of the US manufacturers.
As for code violations, they were no secret according to the coroner. He has
stated in his report that Whistler Mountain, the Government of British Columbia
Inspection Bureau, and the lift manufacturer were aware that there were sections
of the code to which this lift did not comply. There were two incidents which he
feels should have prompted a more thorough investigation.
Three weeks earlier, two empty chairs fell from the cable near tower 21, the same
spot as the fatal accident. Nine months earlier another empty chair plunged 75
feet from the same cable at the same point. Much to the surprise of skiers on the
lift. Although wind may have been a factor in the first incident, the second time
grips simply could not hold at the steepest angle - steeper than the lift was
The Quicksilver accident was not the first time died on a chairlift made by Lift
Engineering. In Keystone, Colorado in 1985 a well failed in the pulley system
sending 48 people flying, one person died. In Sierra, Colorado, 1993, an
overhead cable wheel broke off and a chair fell. Then Lift Engineering filed for
bankruptcy protection leaving a legacy of manufacturing and design problems for
Canadian and American ski resorts. Last winter fatigue cracks were found in
another model of detachable lifts. When engineers took the grips apart they found
even deeper, more serious cracks.
The California Ski Association decided that type of ski lift grips had to go. Some
Californian ski resorts took out the lifts entirely. But the three Canadian ski resorts
using these grips are giving them another chance. Hundreds of grips have been
redesigned and built from scratch at a price tag of $1 million. So far the
prototypes have passed rigorous inspection according to the ski resorts and the
government. They say the grips exceed the existing code requirements.
In the year since the accident at Whistler there has been a police investigation, a
mountain of engineering studies and a damning coroner's report. This season,
Whistler replaced the Quicksilver with a gondola made by a different
manufacturer. Still the BC government and Whistler continue to insist that there
was nothing they could have done to prevent the accident. The only person to
concede fault is the inventor of the lift.
|This shows the
progression of the lift
|A chair that fell off of
the Quicksiver Quad
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