Ski Granby Ranch chairlift underwent mechanical overhaul before fatal accident
January 18, 2017
The Ski Granby Ranch lift that ejected a family of three, killing a Texas woman and injuring her two young children in late December, had recently undergone a significant repair, sources tell the Daily.
Peter Landsman, founder of North American chairlift database Lift Blog, wrote that a person with knowledge on the matter told him that the Quick Draw Express lift had a new electronic drive that powers the chairlift's thrust installed by a third-party company over the summer. The Daily has confirmed this information with another source close to the situation who asked not to be identified.
An initial Colorado Passenger Tramway Safety Board report released on Jan. 9 — also functioning as a temporary agreement with the Grand County ski area for the ongoing operation of the Quick Draw lift — stated that a six-day investigation revealed that a "rare dynamic event" related to the electrical control system was the cause of the fall. This report did not, however, mention any specific maintenance or the installation of a replacement part.
A spokesman for the eight-member tramway safety board said there would be no additional release of information until the formal review of the incident is completed. That report, Lee Rasizer said in a Wednesday email, is not expected for several months.
"There will be no comment relating to the investigation prior to that time," he wrote.
What the tramway safety board did validate in that preliminary document, though, is that the chair occupied by Kelly Huber of San Antonio and her 9- and 12-year-old daughters abruptly swung and struck a tower about a third of the way up the run. The sudden and unanticipated action that brisk Thursday morning bucked the three from the chair and resulted in a 2 ½-story drop onto hard-packed snow. The official review showed the family had not deployed the lift's safety bar, which is not uncommon among skiers and snowboarders.
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"The facts of the incident show that, on December 29, 2016, an unreasonable hazard existed in the continued operation of the lift," the report reads. "The circumstances indicated that environmental factors, weather, and the occupants of Chair No. 58 did not contribute to the cause of the incident."
Huber and her two daughters were rushed by ambulance to Middle Park Medical Center in Granby where the 40-year-old mother was pronounced dead from her traumatic injuries. While the elder daughter was treated and released, the 9-year-old was flown by Flight For Life to Children's Hospital in Aurora due to the severity of her injuries. Per the family's request, Children's provided no updates on the younger girl's condition. However, a memorial fund established by a close family friend for the Hubers on the charitable cause website YouCaring states both girls are physically on the road to recovery after suffering multiple injuries.
Soon after the fatal incident, skiers at Ski Granby Ranch explained to media outlets how the incident unfolded. Witnesses to the accident told Denver's CBS4 that the lift was having trouble for a few days prior to the deadly fall, and that it had also halted for about a 10-minute period earlier that day. Each stoppage led to chairs swaying and bouncing, and ultimately to the dramatic jerk that unseated the Huber family.
"Their chair hit the pole, or hit the sign," bystander Allen McGirl told ABC News, "and it ejected all three people off the chairlift."
After unloading all remaining passengers, the ski area voluntarily shut down the Quick Draw lift until engineers from the state tramway board, which has handled annual chairlift inspections and licensing in Colorado since 1965, deemed it safe for the public. Ski Granby Ranch cut lift ticket prices in half while the main lift at the 400-acre, 40-run family-oriented destination was out of commission. The subsequent operation agreement found that the lift's reserve diesel power source was capable of restoring use of the chairlift, and it was turned back on again for the first time on Jan. 10. It also stipulated five daily inspections and ride checks by regular lift maintenance staff to ensure regular function.
In a Jan. 9 statement, the ski area noted this is the first incident of its kind since the Cipriani family purchased it in 1995. The first lifts were installed at what was then known as Silver Creek Ski Area with its original owner in 1982. A bankruptcy landed a second owner in 1989, with that company eventually selling the resort to Marise and Celso Cipriani, then-owners of Brazilian airliner TransBrasil, which ceased operations in late 2001, and a major meatpacking plant in the country.
The resort replaced one of its two early lifts with the Leitner-Poma manufactured, high-speed quad Quick Draw Express in 1999, and, as the statement continues, it has operated safely at Granby Ranch for those 16 seasons since installation. In 2000, the resort rebranded itself SolVista Basin due to a trademark dispute with two local Grand County businesses. In 2012, the Ciprianis settled on the single name of Granby Ranch for several properties including the ski area, a Jack Nicklaus-designed golf course, bike trails, fishing access and real-estate community.
The statement concludes that prior to the resort opening on Dec. 16 for the ski season, the lift was load-tested on Dec. 5 before a Dec. 8 inspection and licensure by the state tramway board: "There is no indication at this stage of the preliminary investigation that the original lift installation contributed to the incident."
The National Ski Areas Association, a Lakewood, Colorado-based trade group for the country's resort owners and operators, reports the last time a lift malfunction resulted in a fatality was 1993, when a 9-year-old boy died of severe head trauma at what is today Sierra-at-Tahoe. And just 12 deaths total and 73 injuries have been attributed to such an event since 1973, when the NSAA began tracking skier visit statistics, with nearly 16 billion lift rides taking place through the release of a lift safety fact sheet in 2014.
"A passenger is five times more likely to suffer a fatality riding an elevator than a ski lift, and more than eight times more likely to suffer a fatality riding in a car than on a ski lift," the NSAA fact sheet reads.
According to a recent chairlift safety exposé in Outside magazine, Colorado is one of only a few states that mandates ski areas report all injuries originating from lift falls. The state's tramway safety board told the magazine there have been 74 people injured falling off lifts in the last five years — three of which the agency categorized as the lift operator's fault.
Before the Granby Ranch death, the previous lift-related fatality in Colorado occurred at Winter Park in 2002 when a resort worker fell 15 feet after suffering what was believed to be a seizure. The prior lift-failure casualty incidents in the state, though, happened more than 30 years ago. Two died and 49 were seriously injured at Keystone Resort in December 1985 due to a welding failure, and four perished and five were hurt at Vail Ski Resort in March 1976 when cable wires became entangled on the gondola. But with only one other malfunction-related, multiple passenger injury event in that same time — a two-person incident at Loveland Ski Area in January 1992 — the statewide ski area trade association calls Colorado the "gold standard" for lift safety.
"As far as inspections go, Colorado really has the gold standard across the country," said Chris Linsmayer of Colorado Ski Country USA, of which Granby Ranch is a member. "All of our lifts are inspected two or four times a year, and each before being allowed to operate to start the season. The tramway board is also an independent state agency where every inspector holds an engineer's license. We're the only state that requires that."
Letter of the Law
Jim Chalat, a Denver-based attorney whose firm specializes in ski accidents, mostly agrees. He acknowledged lift accidents are not a large part of his personal injury practice because they are so rare.
"As a rule, lifts are a simple technology and generally they're safe," he said. "But there are exceptions, and in those exceptions to the generally safe operation of lifts there could be a malfunction or operator error."
Colorado's Ski Safety Act, first passed in 1979 and amended twice since then, insulates ski resorts from a growing list of liabilities based on the built-in risks of snow sports. But a malfunctioning lift is not one of them.
"The term 'inherent dangers and risks of skiing' does not include the negligence of a ski area operator," Section 33-44-103.5 of the law reads. "Nothing in this section shall be construed to limit the liability of the ski area operator for injury caused by the use or operation of ski lifts."
Chalat knows this firsthand, having argued on behalf of the plaintiffs in the 1985 Keystone lawsuit. A senior partner of his firm also worked on the case for the gondola incident at Vail in '76. He's not been in contact with the Huber family nor seen the underlying data or inspection reports, but if the state's tramway safety board eventually determines fault, a claim could be filed.
"It is not an inherent risk to be thrown off a malfunctioning lift," said Chalat. "Any failure there is negligence and actionable. That's an area of responsibility ski areas cannot immunize themselves from with any lift ticket or waiver."
How the detail of the safety bar — a component on some liftchairs that's not required for use — may factor in, he said, is contingent upon the precise nature of the incident. It wouldn't necessarily preclude a lawsuit, which has the potential for state, or, because the Hubers are not from Colorado, federal court.
"The devil is in the details, and they matter," he said. "It depends on all of the facts."