UPDATE: Devil's Head Resort Ski Lift Scare

UPDATED Tuesday, December 29, 2009 --- 3:47 p.m.

Report from the Department of Commerce on Tuesday, Dec. 29:

Regarding the incident at Devil’s Head Ski Resort on 12/17/09:
On, 12/18/09, I responded to Devil’s Head Ski Resort to investigate an incident that occurred the evening of 12/17/09, which involved Chair Lift #3. I was advised that the lift had rolled backwards and had injured approximately 14 people. Upon my arrival I met with Joe Vittengl, General Manager. I asked Vittengl to gather all of the information he had about the lift, such as maintenance records, test records, names of people involved, including the operator and witnesses, the manual for the lift, and copies of prior inspection reports. I then proceeded to examine the area where the lift was located with Leroy Blacklock who is the Mountain Manager and Mark Konkel who is the Lead Mechanic. I observed three chairs had come off of the wire rope and debris was scattered around the loading area. I also observed one chair that had come off the rope near the first tower. I asked Blacklock and Konkel what had happened. They advised that they were unsure as they were not on site at the time of the incident. Blacklock provided me a ride to the top of the hill where I was able to observe the top wheel. I observed that it had anti-rollback devices on top of the wheel which appeared to be rusted. I asked Blacklock and Konkel if they believe these devices were placed properly and if they engaged at the time of the incident, and they advised that they were unsure.

After reviewing the area and the lift, I made contact with Vittengl again. At this time, I met up with Sauk Country Sheriff’s Detective, Scott Dadam. Dadam proceeded to accompany me throughout the remainder of the investigation. Dadam and I reviewed the maintenance records and lift log for Lift #3. We observed that the lift log was filled out on a daily basis. On the day of the incident, we noted that the initial operator, who checked the lift off and tested the safety brakes on the lift, had not done a safety check or stop at the beginning of the shift. We also observed that on this particular day, the individual who checked off this log had failed to properly fill it out. There are 23 boxes to check off; we counted a total of 17 check marks. We observed similar mistakes with the lift log sheets on a couple previous days, but on all previous days, all operators had performed an initial safety check. On the lift log check off sheet, we observed an area that states, “E-Brake (tested by lift mechanic prior.)” I asked Konkel, the lead mechanic how often the Emergency Brakes are tested and he stated he usually checks them weekly. I asked Konkel where he documents his E-Brake tests, and he advised that he writes the information down in the Lift Maintenance Log. In examining the Lift Maintenance Log, I observed that on Dec. 9, 2009, Bill B., performed a brake test on Lift #3. I observed that prior to this; the last brake test documented was on Mar. 10, 2009.

After reviewing Devil’s Head’s maintenance records, lift log records, and test records, I addressed my concern with Vittengl about the way Devil’s Head was maintaining their documentation. I requested from Vittengl copies of training records for employees, including operators. Vittengl was unable to provide documentation that employees had been properly trained on maintaining and operating the ski lifts. Vittengl did advise me that the operator, George Rettamel, who was running the lift at the time of the incident, was working with them for his second season. He stated that Rettamel was an experienced operator, and had gone through an initial training when he was hired during his first season. Vittengl provided me with a copy of a video that they require all operators to watch prior to operating a lift. Vittengl advised that he was sure that Rettamel had watched the video when he was hired, but was unable to provide any further documentation on training records.

Dadam and I then reviewed copies of an inspection report that had been completed by Sam Geise, Geise Engineering, Inc., third party inspector, in November, 2009. We observed in his report for Wells Fargo Insurance that he had recommended Devil’s Head install a device that would automatically active the E-Brake in the event of a “rollback.” Dadam and I then met with Geise who explained to us, that he had recommended this as an extra precaution that the insurance company would be requiring them to install. Geise advised that he did not believe it was a requirement by code to have this particular device installed. Geise stated that his initial observation of the site, led him to believe that the three braking systems, the service brake, the anti-rollback devices, and the E-brake, on the lift had failed. He advised he would be doing a thorough inspection of the lift to determine what happened, and why the braking systems failed.

On 12/20/09, I received an email from Geise who was performing the investigation as to what malfunctioned with Lift #3. Geise states, “Yesterday we discovered the gear box had failed on lift 3 at Devils Head causing the roll back. The failure of the gear box removed the service brake from the system (one of two working brakes). Because the emergency brake can now not be tested we don’t know its condition. You can see the service brake drum on the gear box of the lift that was removed today. I have completed reinspection of all the lifts and I look forward to meeting with you Monday.” Geise attached pictures of the gear box.

On 12/21/09, I made follow-up contact with Sam Geise. I was accompanied by Dadam. Geise advised that he had finished his inspection Lift #3 to determine what the cause of the incident was on 12/17/09. Geise advised that he discovered that the gear had broken in three spots. Geise stated that once this gear broke, the service brake would no longer be effective. Geise stated that he inspected the anti-rollback devices, and found them to be rusted and corroded. Geise advised that the anti-rollback devices never engaged when the lift started to roll back. Geise also advised that the operator had pushed the E-Brake button, but had been slightly delayed as he had first attempted to use the service brake and was unsure if the operator at top had pushed the button. Geise stated that the Insurance Company Risk Manager took an official statement from the operator. Geise stated that he had re-inspected the other lifts while he was on site, and found that three additional lifts needed to replace anti-rollback devices. Geise also advised he was addressing the concern with documentation and maintenance records with Devil’s Head Management. Geise also informed me that the maintenance staff will be looking at the gear boxes on the other lifts to determine if they have similar concerns.

On 12/21/09, I received the following email from Geise. Geise indicates him his email that the lifts that will need to have anti-rollback devices replaced are #00, #1, and #3. Geise also states in this email that he discovered that the anti-rollback devices were not properly installed. Geise advises that this was the cause of the anti-rollback device failure.

At this time, Devil’s Head Resort’s Lift #3 has been red tagged. This lift can not be used until it is re-inspected by a State Inspector. Devil’s Head is currently working on repairing the lift and the damaged parts. Devil’s Head has ordered new anti-rollback devices for the lifts that Geise identified as needing to be replaced. A full re-inspection and load test will be performed on Lift #3 prior to re-opening to the public.

April Hammond
Occupational Safety Inspector
Wisconsin Department of Commerce

UPDATED Saturday, December 26, 2009 --- 2:40 p.m.

Press Release:

Combination of mechanical failure and failure of the backup braking systems; resort outlines steps to prevent future occurrences; lift to be returned to service next week.

Merrimac, Wisc. (Dec. 26, 2009) – Devil’s Head Resort has announced findings on the causes of a chairlift accident that injured 14 last week.

The primary cause of the accident was a massive failure of the chairlift’s gearbox. A gearbox is a device that receives mechanical power from the lift’s electric motor and reduces RPMs through a complex series of gears, which then powers the lift.

With the gearbox out of commission, the lift’s service brake, which is the primary braking system on the lift, was inoperable.

The lift, “Chairlift 3,” had two backup systems designed to prevent a rollback such as the one that occurred. The first such system, called a “drop dog,” is located at the top terminal of the lift. The drop dog is designed to drop into slots in the top bullwheel, preventing rotation.

The drop dog system was properly deployed, but failed to engage completely with the bullwheel.

The second system, a drive-sheave or “e-brake system,” is deployed at the bottom terminal. Again, lift operations personnel followed correct procedures in deploying the system, but the braking was inadequate to prevent the rollback. Further analysis on why this component failed to stop the lift will require additional testing once the lift is repaired early next week.

“At this point, it’s clear that the accident resulted from a combination of an unforeseen mechanical failure and the failure of the backup braking systems,” said Devil’s Head General Manager Joe Vittengl. “The entire Devil’s Head family truly regrets that this occurred, and we’re working hard to ensure the safety of all of our guests.”

Although the resort’s lifts were all inspected prior to the season, Vittengl said that Devil’s Head Resort immediately re-inspected all of its lifts after the incident, paying special attention to the backup braking systems. With the exception of Chairlift 3, all lifts are in service. Additionally:

- All drop-dog devices and chairlift braking systems have been checked.

- Beginning next week, qualified technicians will conduct comprehensive inspections on the gearboxes of other lifts similar to the one that failed. The inspections will include chemical analysis of gearbox lubricants, which can provide clues to mechanical issues.

- The resort has begun to add electronically-controlled, automatic anti-rollback devices to all chairlifts. Newer lifts are required to have them; lifts of older design are “grandfathered” under tramway codes. Chairlift 3 will have this system installed prior to re-opening.

- Even though the operators of Chairlift 3 followed the correct procedures, the resort is reviewing safety protocols with all lift operations personnel. Further, it is reviewing procedures with its lift maintenance team.

Chairlift 3 is currently undergoing repairs. Vittengl said that Devil’s Head has replaced the gearbox and have conducted a thorough inspection of all electrical and mechanical systems.

In addition to replacing the gearbox and other steps outlined above, the resort is conducting a complete inspection of the wire rope that holds up the chairs that carry passengers.

The lift will also undergo a full “load test” prior to opening, which is required of all new lifts and periodically during a lift’s operating life. Supervised by the State of Wisconsin Inspector, the load test is done to simulate the weight of passengers, and then put the lift through a series of tests to ensure that all systems are functioning properly.

Vittengl said that he expects the lift to return to service sometime next week.

“We’re incredibly grateful that the injuries resulting from this incident weren’t as severe as they might have been,” Vittengl said. Thirteen out of the 14 persons injured were released from the hospital the evening of the incident.

Vittengl noted that a gearbox failure of this sort can’t be predicted.

Vittengl said ”we are extremely grateful and fortunate for the support and precise actions demonstrated by the Devil’s Head Maintenance crew, the Devil’s Head Ski Patrol, local firefighters, area emergency response teams, St. Clare and Sauk Prairie Memorial Hospitals, the State of Wisconsin Inspectors and even some of our guests.”


UPDATED Saturday, December 26, 2009 --- 2:30 p.m.

MERRIMAC, Wis. (AP) — Officials from a Wisconsin resort that runs a ski lift that malfunctioned and injured 14 says the accident's cause couldn't have been predicted.

A packed ski lift at Devil's Head Resort near Merrimac suddenly ran backward on Dec. 17.

In a statement, the resort indicated the main cause was a massive failure of the chairlift's gearbox, which powers the lift. Without the gearbox, the lift's brake was inoperable.

Devil's Head General Manager Joe Vittengl says all the lifts are being re-inspected, including the one that malfunctioned. He says it's being repair and expects it to return to service by Wednesday.

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press.


UPDATED Tuesday, December 22, 2009 --- 1:29 p.m.

Release from the Department of Commerce:

Comment regarding the ski lift accident at Devil’s Head resort on December 17:

“As of mid-day on Monday, December 21, 2009 Department of Commerce (Commerce) safety inspectors are still working on site to determine the cause of the brake failure on the lift. We expect them to complete their initial investigation yet today and begin compiling the accident report. While we do not know at this time exactly when the accident report will be completed, we will announce when it is ready for release.”

“Wisconsin’s safety code for ski lifts conforms to national safety standards and requires annual inspections of all lifts by Commerce staff or in this instance a third party inspector. All inspections must comply with the same stringent safety standards. All operators are also required by law to keep daily logs of their maintenance. These methods are best practices for accident prevention, but they do not guarantee that mechanical failures will not occur.

“While significant mechanical failures are rare, when they do occur Commerce inspectors work diligently with resort personnel, local law enforcement and insurance inspectors to make certain that all safety measures required by code are addressed and, if necessary, corrected.”


UPDATE Posted Friday, December 18, 2009 -- 5:20pm
By Zac Schultz

Town of Merrimac: Just after 7 Thursday night, B.J. Hanson was about to the top of the hill when ski lift 3 stopped. "It stopped for a second and then once momentum caught up it started going backward and it certainly picked up speed pretty quickly from there on."

Roughly 60 to 70 people were on the lift and some of them decided to jump.

Erik Delmore was one of them. "It started going faster and faster and me and my sister jumped off when it was not as steep off the ground. It was pretty scary."

Hanson and his friend waited until the lift stopped a few seconds later. "There were quite a few people behind us that were yelling jump as we went over the top of them still in the chair."

"It wasn't as far as some of the people jumped," says Amir Shadlu, "but it was a lot of big stones and stuff, so it kinda hurt."

"I think there were a couple of broken legs at the bottom, and a lot of people were screaming and stuff," says Delmore.

Fourteen people were transported to local hospitals. Seven came to St. Clare's in Baraboo. "They were panicked, teary eyed, kind of traumatized," says Dr. Kansas DuBray.

One girl had a broken ankle. The rest were eventually treated and released. Dr. DuBray says they were expecting worse. "Mainly head, neck and back injuries were the majority of them."

By Friday State Inspectors had the lift taped off, and General Manager Joe Vittengl is still waiting for answers. "There are several layers of safety brakes with this chairlift. That is one of our concerns is to determine exactly what happened."

The ski lifts at Devil's Head are inspected every year, most recently November 5th by an independent company. The Department of Commerce says they've never had a problem with mechanical failure. "Everything passed, the brakes passed," says Vittengl.

Meanwhile, Vittengl says the jumpers made the wrong choice, noting everyone who stayed in their chairs was evacuated safely. "I heard from one individual that his buddy jumped and he sat in the chair and he was fine after the chair evac and his friend-they had to send him to the hospital with some type of leg injury."

Vittengl says his in-house inspectors checked out the rest of the lifts last night and they were all running fine.


Statement released by Joe Vittengl, 5:53pm

MERRIMAC, Wisc. (DRAFT) – A team of investigators including state inspectors, tramway experts and staff members of the Devil’s Head resort are conducting an investigation into what led to a lift accident at the resort on Thursday evening.

The incident injured 14 skiers and snowboarders. Most of the injuries were minor. One person remains under observation in an area hospital.

Resort General Manager Joe Vittengl said that the resort’s entire staff was deeply concerned for the resort guests who were injured in the incident. “We’re contacting them and offering any assistance we can,” Vittengl said.

Vittengl said the lift had been inspected by an independent tramway engineer, per state regulations, on November 5, prior to the start of the ski season. It was given clearance to operate. Vittengl also said that the lift’s safety systems are routinely checked more frequently than industry standards require.

The lift was run by a veteran operator. Chairlifts of the type involved in the incident have four independent mechanisms to stop the lift in the event of an incident.

Vittengl said that despite inspections of all lifts just before the start of the ski season, the resort will have all lifts inspected again immediately.

“We want our guests to have fun,” he said. “But more importantly, we want them to be safe. It’s our top priority.”

The lift on which the incident occurred will remain out of service until the investigation is completed and repairs can be made. Other lifts at Devil’s Head continue to operate on normal schedule.


UPDATED Friday, December 18, 2009 --- 1:30 p.m.

NOTE: Click on the "photos" tab for pictures provided by Baraboo News Republic photographer Todd Krysiak.

From NBC15's Zac Schultz:
The General Manager of the Devil's Head Resort, near Merrimac, says he still isn't sure what caused last night's incident. There are several emergency braking systems on the lift. He doesn't know why they didn't kick in sooner than they did. The GM confirms the ski lift did pass inspection last month. In-house inspectors did look at the other ski lifts on the property overnight. All were given the okay to operate. The facility is open at this time. They are expecting a huge crowd this weekend.

The General Manager also told Zac all of the injuries occurred from people jumping to the ground. Those who remained seated were not hurt; and were eventually rescued by emergency crews.


UPDATED Friday, December 18, 2009 --- 11:25 a.m.

From NBC15's Zac Schultz.
The Department of Commerce is now overseeing this investigation. According to a spokesperson, the ski lifts are inspected each year. The last inspection was actually completed last month. However, that inspection was conducted by a third-party, and has not been turned-in yet. The last two years, no problems were reported.

Inspectors with the Department of Commerce are at the scene right now, conducting their investigation. A preliminary report will not be issued; only a final report will be published once complete.

Sauk Prairie Memorial Hospital and Clinics treated 7 patients; all arrived by ambulance last night. Six were treated and released. They were evaluated for muscular skeletal conditions. The seventh patient stayed overnight because of a lower extremity fracture and is expected to be discharged today (may have already occurred). Seven patients were also treated at Baraboo St. Clare Hospital. Six were treated and released last night. One was kept overnight for observation.


UPDATED Friday, December 18, 2009 --- 1:00 a.m.

14 people were taken to area hospitals after a ski lift malfunctioned at a Sauk County resort.

"There were quite a few people that were behind us yelling jump."

That's just what B.J. Hanson and his friends did Thursday night at about seven when a ski lift malfunctioned at Devil's Head Resort in Merrimac.

Erik Delmore says, "I think there were a couple of broken legs at the bottom and a lot of people were screaming and stuff."

According to officials, the lift did start going up the hill. Then it stopped and started to move backwards. That's when some people started to actually jump from the lift.

Delmore says, "It started going faster and faster and me and my sister jumped off and was kind of .... not as steep off the ground. It was pretty scary."

The cause of the malfunction is still under investigation. But, according to officials, they say they can't remember anything like this happening in the past.

They also say 14 people were taken to two area hospitals. Seven were taken to Sauk Prairie Memorial Hospital and Clinic by ambulance.

The other seven were taken to St. Clare Hospital in Baraboo. At last check, four of those patients were released.

Chip Meister, Sauk County's Chief Deputy says, " It's an unfortunate incident.... not only for the injured but for the business as well."

An unfortunate situation indeed. But one that could've turned out much worse. No one from the resort was available for comment Thursday night.


UPDATED Thursday, December 17, 2009 --- 10:30 p.m.
UPDATED Thursday, December 17, 2009 --- 9:35 p.m.

Update from Sauk Prairie Memorial Hospital & Clinic
Sauk Prairie Memorial Hospital & Clinics has returned to normal operations following this evening's disaster situation. Seven patients total were transported by ambulance to SPMHC. All are in fair condition.

Update from Baraboo St. Clare Hospital:
Treated 7 patients; no serious injuries
Four of the 7 have been released. Three are still being treated but are said to be in stable/fair condition


UPDATED Thursday, December 17, 2009 --- 9:30 p.m.

MERRIMAC, Wis. (AP) -- Authorities say at least three people were seriously injured in a ski lift accident at the Devil's Head Resort near the Wisconsin town of Merrimac.

Sauk County Chief Deputy Chip Meister says it happened about 7 p.m. Thursday. He says the chair lift stopped, and then started going backward, and lift operators were unable to stop it immediately.

Meister says 12 people were taken to area hospitals. He says at least three of them were seriously injured but not critically, while seven had minor injuries. He didn't have details on the ages of the victims or the nature of their injuries.

The chief deputy says the lift was full, but he didn't know how may people were aboard when it started going backward. He says emergency responders finished evacuating the lift just after 9 p.m.

Merrimac is about 20 miles northwest of Madison.

Copyright 2009 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.


UPDATED Thursday, December 17, 2009 --- 9:05 p.m.

Update from Sauk Prairie Memorial Hospital & Clinic:
Five patients under evaluation right now; none are in critical condition.


UPDATED Thursday, December 17, 2009 --- 8:50 p.m.

Right now, Sauk County Sheriff's Department reports at least 3 serious injuries after a ski lift malfunction at Devil's Head Ski Resort in Merrimac.

There are at least a dozen people still stuck on the chair lift, waiting to be rescued. According to the Sheriff's Department, a ski lift started traveling backwards, and operators couldn't get it to stop.

Sauk Prairie Memorial Hospital and St. Clare Hospital in Baraboo are treating patients. St. Clare is treating 4 patients; no serious injuries.

From Sauk Prairie Memorial Hospital Website:

Sauk Prairie Memorial Hospital & Clinics is responding to a disaster situation. The latest updates for the public and the media will be posted to this website every hour.

ONLY INJURED AND OTHER EMERGENCY PATIENTS AS WELL AS MEDICAL PERSONNEL ARE ALLOWED INTO THE BUILDING AT THIS TIME. Injured and other emergency patients may enter the hospital building through the Emergency Vehicle Entrance at the corner of First Street and Lincoln Avenue.

FAMILY MEMBERS: If you believe your family member has been transported to Sauk Prairie Memorial Hospital, you may go to St. John’s Evangelical Lutheran Church, 100 Oak Street, Prairie du Sac (located across street from SPMH) to check on their status.

Stay with NBC15 News for continuing coverage.


Posted Thursday, December 17, 2009 --- 8:16 p.m.

An employee at Devil's Head Ski Resort in Sauk County tells NBC15 tonight that there were multiple injuries on the ski hill.

She did not know how many or the severity of the injuries.

CEO Sandy Anderson at Baraboo St. Clare Hospital says as of 8:40 p.m., one ambulance has arrived with a patient, and three walk-in patients have come into the E.R.. None of the injuries are serious so far. However, St. Clare has been warned that more patients might be coming. They were notified at 7:15 p.m. of an accident at Devil's Head, involving "an unknown number of people."

According to the Sauk Prairie Memorial Hospital & Clinics website: Sauk Prairie Memorial Hospital & Clinics is responding to a disaster situation. The latest updates for the public and the media will be posted to their website every hour.

Photos by Baraboo News Republic photographer Todd Krysiak. The base of this lift was damaged Thursday in an incident that injured at least 10 riders at Devil's Head Resort. First responders worked to pull stranded people from the chairs more than an hour after the accident.