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Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Whistler British Columbia - Excalibur Gondola Tower Snaps leaving dozens falling towards the ground fearing for their life.

WHISTLER, British Columbia Excalibur Gondola
As daylight faded in Whistler British Columbia and frigid temperatures set in this evening, fire crews worked to evacuate dozens of passengers trapped in about 30 gondola cars on the Excalibur Gondola Lift.

The passengers were stranded after the tower on the Excalibur gondola on Blackcomb Mountain collapsed in what Intrawest called "a structural failure." Intrawest is the company that owns the resort. Witnesses say they heard a big booming from the Blackcomb "Excalibur" tower around 2:30 p.m. PST, followed by a snapping noise. The tower is now leaning quite heavily to one side.

Police says there were no serious injuries, although five people were taken to hospitals. Another reports states that ten people have been reported injured in a gondola accident on Blackcomb Mountain.

Whistler RCMP Sgt. Steve Wright said he has no further details of the nature of the injuries, other than to say they are believed to be non-life threatening. Wright said the evacuation of skiers and boarders trapped on Blackcomb Mountain's main gondola was complete just after 6 p.m. He credited the efforts of firefighters, who rescued skiers from the gondolas by extending ladders up to gondola doors.

Earlier on Tuesday afternoon, one of the towers holding up the Excalibur Gondola partially collapsed. There was a delay before anyone could be rescued as rescue workers had to secure the fallen tower, said Doug Forseth, a spokesman with Whistler Blackcomb. The accident happened when the top half of tower number four became separated from the base, he said. The connection came lose and Forseth said, no one yet knows why.

None of the gondola cars came off the cable and it is not known if any of the cars hit the ground. One of the cars came to rest on a bus shelter and fire officials using a truck and ladder began unloading the passengers from that one first. In all, 30 cars on the lower base of the gondola are stranded. They hold a maximum of eight passengers each, but were not full, officials said.

The upper loop of the gondola operates seperately and passengers on that loop were able to unload as usual.

Jennifer Miller, a reporter for the Whistler Question who is at the scene, said one of the towers supporting the cable for Excalibur gondola on Blackcomb has collapsed. One of the cars is "hanging over Fitzsimmons Creek," she said. "There are many fire trucks and ambulances at the scene, but so far, there is no indication anyone has been hurt" she said.

Many other skiiers are trapped inside cars and they too will have to be manually rescued. The injuries reported were "minor," said Michelle Leroux, spokeswoman for Dopelmayr/Garaventra Group, the German company that built the Excalibur. Leroux said she was not aware of any broken bones or other serious injuries. Leroux said the problem with the tower affected the gondola cars, which are connected to a cable that runs from tower to tower. None of the gondola cars fell, she said. In some places the cable sagged low enough that firefighters could reach the people trapped inside using extension ladders on top of the fire trucks. In other cases, people had to be rescued from gondola cars still suspended high above the ground. Leroux could not explain the details of those evauation efforts.

Eighty per cent of the high speed chairs and Gondolas on Whistler and Blackcomb have been designed and built by Doppelmayr, including the new Peak-to-Peak from the tips of Whislter to Blackcomb. Snowboarder Logan Swayze entered a gondola car at 2:15 p.m. By the time his car, which he shared with two others, got to the top half of the run, the car stopped abruptly, he said. 'We didn't think anything of it at first. It stops all the time," Swayze said. "But the time drew on." Only after he made a phone call to a friend did he learn that a tower had collapsed and all mountain visitors were being evacuated from the lifts and gondola cars. After an hour's wait, Swayze's car was moved slowly to the base. That's when he saw the mayhem of fire and ambulance crews, stretching ladders to the cars to bring skiers to the ground. "We saw a lift tower had broken in half and the gondola was hanging. There were still people in the bottom half" of the gondola, he said.

A bartender at the Longhorn Saloon and Grill said other staff in the infamous Whistler pub saw a gondola car flip upsidedown, and then she witnessed it swinging wildly from side to side for quite some time. There did not appear to be anyone inside the car, although she did hear ambulance sirens responding to the scene. The accident appears to have happened right near the bottom of the Blackcomb gondola, at the centre of bustling Whistler village.

At the Garibaldi Lift Company, another bar beside the Blackcomb Gondola, a waitress said the main cable was sagging and the gondola cars -- which are usually suspended high in the sky -- were all hanging low to the ground at 3 p.m. She could see no evidence of injuries. However, she said people inside the packed bar -- popular with the apres-ski crowd -- were scared.

Fiona Famulak, president of the Whistler Chamber of Commerce, said at 3:30 p.m. that she had few details except that the accident was on the Excalibur Gondola. The Excalibur was installed at Whistler/Blackcomb in 1994, and is a long gondola built in two stages. The short stage runs from Whistler village to the Base 2 station on Blackcomb Mountain, while the second stage runs to the top of Blackcomb. The accident occurred on the shorter first stage, close to Whistler Village. Leroux said she was not aware of any accidents on the gondola in its 14 year history in Whistler. The Excalibur is tested by the B.C. Safety Authority every year and passed its most recent test this fall, Leroux said.

The Excalibur can hold eight people per car, is 2,204 metres long and at its highest is 367 metres tall, according to the Whistler/Blackcomb Web site. This is one of the resort's veteran gondolas. It is a different facility from the new Peak-to-Peak gondola which opened earlier this month to connect Whistler and Blackcomb from the top of the two mountains. The representative for Jim Godfrey, the executive director for the 2010 Winter Games in Whistler, wouldn't discuss the incident, and said that any incident on Blackcomb Mountain would be dealt with by the company itself.

In 2002, a five-year-old girl fell about 35 feet from the Creekside Gondola on Whistler Mountain when a latch malfunctioned and the car door opened. Soft snow cushioned the girl's fall, and she survived. The gondola was installed in 1996 to replace the Quicksilver Express, after an accident in December, 1995, in which two people died and eight others were injured. In that tragic accident four chairs fell four storeys to the ground.

Trevor MacDonald, 25, of Vancouver, died; Vancouver lawyer James Roche, 50, died later; and Mike Negraeff, a medical intern from Saskatchewan, was left a paraplegic. A damning report by the B.C. coroner's service said the Quicksilver accident could have been prevented, detailing a litany of failures by the lift manufacturer, the ski resort and government regulators to correct flaws in the Quicksilver Express.

B.C.'s chief inspector of ski-lifts told The Vancouver Sun following the 1996 accident that the fatal incident was not an isolated one, since about 140 ski-lift reports of injuries, death or major equipment failures were made to provincial safety inspectors in the previous two winters. More recently, in June of this year, a braking system on North Vancouver's Grouse Mountain gondola triggered accidentally, trapping about 140 people inside for nearly an hour. In 1988, six people were injured when a gondola fell five metres to the ground at Sunshine Village ski resort near Banff in the Rocky Mountains.

Royal Canadian Mounted Police Sgt. Steve Wright says the gondolas that police were most concerned about were safely evacuated.

For More on this Story, visit the Vancouver 2010 Olympic Blog

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