The old year drew to a close in Girdwood, Alaska, at the end of December in a most unseasonable way. Rain was falling and the winds were howling as if it were an ugly fall day. An anemometer on Max's Mountain high above the Alyeska Resort, 45 miles south of Alaska's largest city, clocked a gust that pegged 94 mph.
Resort staff pushed forward as best they could with New Year's Eve activities. Rains, sometimes torrential, are a recognized winter phenomenon at the sea-level ski area. This time, rain washed out a planned torchlight parade down the slopes, but the weather in the valley was considered good enough for the fireworks display to proceed.
The hotel was booked up with revelers. The Anchorage-based Ska band Nervis Rex was playing in the hotel's Sitzmark Bar & Grill, and up at the top of the mountain, the Seven Glaciers Restaurant was featuring a special chef's tasting menu featuring American caviar, brown butter trout, Wagyu beef filet and more.
The Alyeska Aerial Tram was kept busy hauling diners in glass-encased comfort up and down the mountain until disaster struck. Just before 7:30 p.m. the winds that had been scouring the high mountains above Girdwood began raking the lower mountain.
"Dec. 31, 2012 (at) approximately 7:20pm Alyeska Ski Resort saw wind gusts of over 45 miles per hour that caused the tram to hit the tower," Jason Lott, a resort spokesman, would notify reporters early New Year's Day. "There were two guests and three employees in the first car and two employees in the second car at the time of the incident. One guest had minor injuries but the extent is still unknown at this time."
There had been ample warning the wind was going to blow. Two days earlier, the National Weather Service had cautioned that "a powerful cyclone across the North Pacific will move northward into Southcentral Alaska tonight through Sunday. Along with unusually warm air, this system will support powerful Chinook winds through Turnagain Arm, Portage Valley, Anchorage, and the higher elevations near Anchorage." Alyeska caught the tail of that storm.
A simple fender-bender?
Lott's initial press release made the New Year's Eve tram accident sound relatively minor. It was anything but. The tram car didn't just "hit the tower." The tram car was left impaled on the tower. It had to be cut free before it could be sent down the mountain, and that wouldn't happen until after the five people inside had been evacuated -- a process that itself took five hours. An Alyeska guest who was in the car and sustained injuries, 15-year-old Katie Quinn, later described a cold and traumatic wait for rescue in a smashed and drafty tram car stuck high above the ground.
Those involved with the rescue said it took an unusually long time because Alyeska staff had never trained for a scenario where a tram car ended up stuck on a tower. There are indications this accident might be unique in that regard. Tram accidents, in and of themselves, are rare.
The tram is now out of operation, and it is unclear when operations will resume. Resort officials say they hope to have it running again by mid-February, but they admit it could take longer. Experts have been flown in from Europe to help make repairs.
Could have been worse
Veteran tram operators who have seen photographs of the accident say the resort is incredibly lucky the car wasn't packed with skiers. The car has a capacity of 60. Given the visible damage, they said, it is almost certain people would have been knocked out of the car and plummeted 100 feet or more to the slopes below. No one, however, was willing to go on the record to talk about their thoughts on what happened. Girdwood is a small company town, with Alyeska far and away the biggest employer.
The official Alyeska company line now is that the tram-smashing crash was an unavoidable accident caused by a "rogue" wind gust.
Whether that becomes the official explanation for the accident remains to be seen. The resort's tram tower sits on lands leased from the state of Alaska. Adam Smith, an Anchorage-based natural resource manager for the Division of Mining, Land and Water in the Department of Natural Resources, said this week his agency is still awaiting a copy of Alyeska's full report on the accident before deciding what to do.
"We're looking at the event and the stuff, but we're not deep into that process yet,'' he said. "It was a pretty scary situation. I guess everyone agrees on that.''
'Kind of a gray area'
The state has the authority to pursue its own investigation, but whether it will do so is unclear. Smith said the decision could hinge on the quality of the report done by the resort. He noted there is no history of problems with the tram. This is the first serious accident in the tram's 17-year history.
Dave Wilson, the only certified tram inspector in the state, said investigations of tram accidents fall into "a kind of a gray area.''
There is, he said, no established protocol -- as there is for airplane or automobile accidents. He expected Alyeska's insurance company to investigate, but was unsure whether any government entity would examine the accident.
Wilson at one time managed the tram for Alyeska. He is now on the verge of leaving the state to take over tram operations at the Vail ski area in Colorado. He said he didn't want to guess what happened in Girdwood because he wasn't there at the time, and "I'm not part of the investigation."
The people involved with the investigation, meanwhile, are very tight-lipped. Alyeska Director of Marketing Jessica Pezak, who was hired last summer, has been answering questions for the resort. She was unable to answer many in a brief interview Thursday, though she did say the resort's investigation was complete.
She could provide no information what it might cost to repair the tram. She did not know the names of the three resort employees in the smashed tram car who helped care for Quinn after the accident. The young woman was knocked unconscious and suffered a serious gash in her head. It later took eight staples to close.
Pezak wasn't sure of the wind-operating parameters for the tram or of how many 45 mph gusts blew in the minutes before the tram left the upper terminal and hit the tower. Alyeska is now attributing the accident to a "rogue gust." Asked if there was one gust or several, Pezak said, "I'm going to say it was one gust." When it was pointed out to her that on the morning after the accident, Lott had sent out a press release reporting "wind gusts (plural) of over 45 mph," she revised her story. "I'm not looking at the weather logs," she said. "I don't know."
She was clear the tram is not designed to operate in winds exceeding 45 mph. Three past employees familiar with tram operations agreed, and said that if winds were gusting to 45 mph when the tram was at the upper terminal, it should not have left. Normally, they said, the tram is put on "wind hold" when gusts hit 30 mph. The tram operator on duty makes that call.
"They can continue wind hold," one source said, or remove it if the winds ease. "Usually management does not override the operator."
Any orders to keep tram running?
It is unclear in this case whether any orders were given to keep the tram running despite strong winds. Pezak said there weren't. She also said there is no basis to a rumor that has circulated widely since the accident claiming some resort employees were fired because of what happened on New Year's Eve.
"There are all sorts of rumors," she added, but as far as Alyeska is concerned, the story is a simple one.
"It was a pretty straightforward accident that involved the weather," she said. "We're not holding any employees responsible. Haven't you ever been walking somewhere and you were just hit by an unpredictable gust of wind? There's a lot of very variable wind in the mountains. If this gust had hit before or after (the tower), this would not have happened. This was timing and weather. We've been pretty honest about what happened. It was a weather anomaly."
She said the resort is describing the gust that left the car impaled on the tower as a "rogue wind" because "it means that the tram was operating within the threshold" when hit by a wind outside of the threshold.
Contact Craig Medred at craig(at)alaskadispatch.com