1976 – tragedy prompts safety changes | VailDaily.com

1976 – tragedy prompts safety changes

Peter W. Seibert

By that time, I had left my office to see for myself what had happened up above. I drove to the accident scene in a snowcat and saw the blood-splashed wreckage at the foot of Tower 5. I could not accept what I saw. The bloody snow and the crumpled cars seemed like something from a surrealistic movie.

How could such violence, such random death occur on my beloved Vail Mountain? It was one thing to find blood-soaked snow and death in the Italian Alps with a war going on. But this? It was beyond rational understanding.

I stayed at Tower 5 for a while. The sun was setting. Then I heard a distant voice calling far up the mountain. I couldn’t make out the words at first. Then I realized the voice was shouting: “Anyone up there? Anyone?”

There was a pause, then it came again, closer. Finally a lone patrolman on skis came into sight. He had a bullhorn and was stopping beneath each hanging car and shouting up. When there was no answer, he moved on down the hill, repeating the questions over and over as he descended the empty mountainside.

I realized I was shivering. The darkness Paul Testwuide and I had so dreaded was about to fall. It was the end of Vail’s worst day.

In the aftermath of the accident, we couldn’t relax. Another gondola victim died.

Two days after he was transferred to St. Anthony’s Hospital, Steve Meoli, one of the four friends from Massachusetts in the car that had landed upright, died suddenly and unexpectedly. The cause of death was a rupture of the major blood vessel leading from his heart. He had been cheerful, even answering questions for the press immediately after the accident. The next day he had complained that he had no feeling in first his right leg, then in both legs. A huge bruise began forming on his chest. He went into surgery and died early the next morning.

The morning after the accident, Gary Wall, the young police chief of Vail, began a thorough investigation focused on the frightening possibility that the cable had been sabotaged. The investigation turned up nothing.

Vail Associates hired consulting firms to find out what caused the cable to fray. The Colorado Passenger Tramway Safety Board, which has jurisdiction over all ski lifts in the state, had an engineer do the same thing. Three months later, they arrived at the same conclusion. The sheathing strands on the cable had probably been weakened by stresses that were a result of flaws in the cable’s design and in the original placement of the towers.

To correct these flaws, we spent $2 million to replace the faulty cable with one of a different design and to install numerous new safety features. We also removed the original gondola in Vail Village and installed new chairlifts in its place, at a cost of several million dollars. We wanted to ensure that a tragedy like this would never again occur.

The following is the 58th installment of the Vail Daily’s serialization of “Vail: Triumph of a Dream” by Vail Pioneer and Founder Pete Seibert. This excerpt comes from Chapter 11, entitled “Tragedy on the Mountain.” The book can be purchased at the Colorado Ski Museum, as well as bookstores and other retailers throughout the Vail Valley.

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