BILLINGS - An engineer will inspect Red Lodge Mountain's Willow Creek chairlift on Friday in an attempt to find out why one chair detached and fell to the ground on Wednesday, injuring two Billings teenagers.
"Our No. 1 concern is for the health of the two boys on the chair and the safety of our guests. That's the primary thing," said Jeff Schmidt, the mountain's manager. "And we're taking every step possible to figure out how this happened."
On Thursday afternoon, Andrew Higgins, one of the Billings teens involved in the accident, was "at home and just sore" said his father, Allen Higgins. The other Billings teen, identified as Austin Wallis, could not be reached for comment.
Provided no problems are found, the lift could be reopened on Saturday, Schmidt said.
At the time of the accident, Karter Estill, a Billings 18-year-old, was riding on the Willow Creek lift, about 15 or 20 chairs behind the two injured teens.
Estill didn't see the fall, or feel any vibration from the chair dropping. But as he passed above the accident scene, he was stunned to see his friend, Austin Wallis, lying on his back. Wallis was on one side of the pole with the chair to his right.
"I yelled down to him," Estill said in a phone interview Thursday.
"Are you guys OK?
"He kind of gave me a thumbs up," Estill said.
The other teen, Andrew Higgins, lay on the other side of the pole with a bystander holding his neck.
It took about three minutes for Estill and his friend to reach the lift's dropoff point. From there, they raced down to the accident scene on their snowboards.
"By the time we got there, there were already a lot of bystanders and a whole bunch of ski patrol," Estill said.
"I was pretty shocked that a whole chair had fallen off the cable. And I was pretty shocked to see one of my friends down there," Estill said. He hadn't realized Wallis was at the mountain that day until he saw him on his back in the snow.
Estill, who has snowboarded at Red Lodge for eight years, described the wind on Wednesday as coming in strong bursts. Earlier in the day, Estill said he was on the triple chairlift when the chair was blown sideways by the wind. After the accident, Estill and his friend continued snowboarding until the mountain's late-afternoon closing.
Despite Wednesday's unusual event, the ski hill was open for business almost as usual on Thursday. Two lifts were shut down because of high winds and another was temporarily closed but restarted when winds calmed. Four inches of snow had fallen, making the road to the mountain slippery in sections.
Visitation had declined to about 1,400 skiers and snowboarders on Thursday. That compared to two record-setting days at the beginning of the week.
It's hard to say whether the wind, day of the week or Wednesday's chair detachment reduced the number of skiers on Thursday.
The 1959 Willow Creek lift was modified and upgraded in 1983 and again in 2008, Schmidt said. All lifts undergo annual inspections, including inspections of the cables.
On the lift, made by the Riblet Tramway Co., the chair is attached to an "internal chair clip" that is inserted inside the tensioned cable that carries all of the chairs. The chairs are attached to the clips inside a tube that includes a bushing, washer and keeper pin. The mountain's Grizzly Peak and Miami Beach chairlifts are the same style.
The forged steel clips are inspected for cracks every other year and are stress tested. Because of how the chairs are attached, a complete release of the chair while under load is "uncommon," Schmidt said, although he said he had heard of two similar instances occurring at Lookout Pass ski area on the Montana-Idaho border and one at Mount Baker in Oregon.
"There have been incidents during unusual loading circumstances that they've come off at the load area," he said, for example when the cable advances but not the chair. But Wednesday's incident occurred halfway up the nearly 4,000-foot-long lift, which rises from just above the base area to the Midway Chalet.
The two teens had just reached tower No. 10 when the chair detached.
"I think the wind definitely played into it," Schmidt said. "We had gusts up high to 40 mph, but we had not had any gusts that high down lower."
Schmidt said he talked to two lift riders behind the detached chair who said it got "really windy when they were coming out of a tree tunnel."
He said the decision to shut down lifts isn't based on any one factor, such as wind speed. The direction of the wind also is considered, as is mountain topography that can block or enhance the wind speed.