By Michael Laycock
Whistler Question (Whistler, B.C.)
October 31, 1996

The coroner’s report into last year’s fatal Quicksilver lift accident has determined that design problems combined with inadequate checks and balances on the part of the lift manufacturer, the provincial inspection branch and Whistler Mountain led to the tragedy.

The long-awaited, 18-page report by provincial coroner Peter Gordon was released Wednesday. In chilling detail, it cites a litany of lift-design weaknesses including grips that failed to meet provincial standards, lift chairs colliding with towers, and a safety alarm that was removed.

It adds that on the procedural side, some design problems were either not detected or not adequately acted upon by manufacturer Lift Engineering, lift owner Whistler Mountain and/or the inspection branch of the Ministry of Municipal Affairs.

“The problems, weaknesses and causes noted in this report were all items that could have, and should have, been found and attended to before they culminated in the fatal accident on Dec. 23, 1995,” Gordon writes in the report.

“There was more than one occasion when an incident or maintenance problem should have alerted the various parties to undertake a more thorough examination of the lift. Such an examination did not take place.

The system of checks and balances was inadequate to prevent this tragedy….There were also problems concerning a lack of adequate communication amongst the three parties and attention to some maintenance matters.”

Vancouver resident Trevor MacDonald was killed and nine people were injured Dec. 23 when four chairs fell from the lift as skiers were downloading. One of the injured, James Roche, died later due to complications from his injuries.

Gordon determined that the two deaths were results of traumatic injuries sustained in the accident, and that the deaths were indeed accidental.

The investigation, carried out by the B.C. Coroners Service in conjunction with the RCMP, revealed that the accident was preceded by a lift host halting the Quicksilver lift for a misload at the top station at 3:11 p.m. Dec. 23.

The lift came to a sudden, violent stop when an emergency brake kicked in, and the chair on which MacDonald and two companions were travelling swung backwards and forwards as the rope bounced up and down.

The chair’s grip then detached from the haul rope and slid down the rope until until it collided with the chair in front of it. MacDonald’s chair then fell about 23 metres (75 feet) to the ground.

The second chair then slid into Roche’s chair, which collided with a fourth chair, and all three collided with a sheave assembly on tower 20 and fell to the ground.

Emergency personnel were called to Whistler Mountain at about 3:54 p.m.

The subsequent investigation involved a series of tests and component examinations that determined, among other findings:

– while all four of the grips were found to be in good condition, none of the chairs complied with provincial code requirements for longitudinal and lateral swing clearance. As a result, chair hangers and grip assemblies had evidence of nicks and scars from colliding with towers. “The numerous contacts with the towers were not guided glances, they were hard jarring collisions,” Gordon writes.

– all 29 grips tested also failed to meet requirements for grip-slip force, which contributed to the detachment of the latter three chairs.

– the maximum rope angle on the on the quicksilver was 38 degrees — two and a half degrees more than stated in documents supplied by the manufacturer.

– something was out of adjustment with the controls on the lift’s electric motors. Under provincial regulations, motors should bring the lift to a complete halt without help from any other braking system.

But the misadjustments led a performance monitor to sense an emergency, and it shut the motors down and applied the emergency brake. “The emergency stop was therefore more sudden and jerky in nature than a normal stop,” the report says. “This problem had existed for some time, but it was not attended to.”

– a grip-force alarm at the lift’s lower terminal had been removed, contrary to code, and without the knowledge of lift operators, used on another lift on the mountain that had malfunctioned.

– a switch designed to detect chairs coming out of the terminal did not always function reliably and was relocated without the knowledge of Whistler Mountain, and maintenance staff at WMSC did not make not of the missing part during routine examination.

There were two previous accidents on the lift in 1995 prior to Dec. 23, the report says. The first, on March 14, involved chairs detaching from the rope and falling to the ground in the area of tower 21.

The second, on Dec. 1, involved two chairs detaching from the rope and falling. No one was injured in either incident.

The former accident was attributed to high wind, while the latter was thought to be due to a welding modification done to the grip-jaw surfaces.

The Quicksilver, known as a Yan 11 lift, was manufactured in the United States and installed in summer 1991.

Whistler Mountain president Doug Forseth said he found the findings of the report to be appropriate overall, but that it could lead to some misinterpretations.

“In a nutshell, I guess I think it’s unfortunate that 10 months of work gets condensed down to about 15 pages,” he said. “It doesn’t do it justice. I just think there’s the potential for misunderstanding.”

For instance, the testing performed on the 29 grips involved unloaded chairs, but the lift was designed to operate adequately when loaded, he said.

In addition, Forseth said that while his company is responsible for maintenance, record-keeping and daily operation, most of the problems noted in the report were related to the lift design.

“It’s clear, in my mind, anyway, that the problem is not with Whistler Mountain,” he said.

And he added that his company has spent $6.2 million to replace the lift and ensure safety for guests in the future.

“I think we have taken, absolutely, the highest road.”

But he allowed that better communication is needed between the three parties in the future.

The families of the men who died as a result of the accident issued a statement Wednesday through their lawyers thanking Gordon for his “diligent and thoughtful efforts” and “particularly for his insightful recommendations.”

“The MacDonald family and the Roche family hope that the tragic loss of Trevor MacDonald and James Roche will not be in vain if public safety can be enhanced as a result of Mr. Gordon’s investigation and the prompt implementation of his recommendations by the provincial government, Whistler Mountain, lift manufacturers and others involved in the recreation industry,” the statement says.

The Roche family’s lawyer, Robert Ward, said it’s premature at this point to say whether or not his client intends to take legal action.

“I think that’s very hard to say,” he said. “Whether there is a lawsuit or not remains to be seen.”

The release of the report, initially expected in May, was delayed several times due to a number of factors such as difficulty locating witnesses, Gordon said.

“Unfortunately, often even a car accident can take six months to be completed,” he said.

“I was hoping we would have had the review process done in a little less time. But we had to get the parties together, review it, and re-review it. I’d rather have it done well and thoroughly than have it rushed.”

Gordon said the investigation has been draining for him personally, but he’s pleased it has come to a definitive conclusion with recommendations for the future.

“At times it’s been quite exhausting, and at times it’s been very stressful, but that comes with the territory,” he said.

“But I’m quite happy. I feel we’ve been quite thorough and have reached conclusions. I’m very satisfied that we’ve got some recommendations that, if carried out, could truly help prevent this kind of tragedy again in the future.”