The gondola cars are small and relatively cramped; with six people inside, their knees almost touch. There are windows all around. The door is latched from the outside by an attendant before the car takes off; another attendant at the top opens it. Skis are carried in small bins outside the car; the skiers carry their poles.
At about 9:15 Car No. 60 began its ascent. And the first faint signs of trouble began to appear. There is a chair lift that runs up the Lionshead section parallel to Gondola II. It is about 50 feet away, across a run called Bwana, and anyone riding the chair lift can easily see and hear the cars on the gondola as they ascend the cables in graceful arcs between a series of huge steel towers. The attendant at the top of the chair lift was Greg Bemis; he recalled that a little after 9:15 a skier who had just got off reported that he had heard rumblings along the gondola cable. Then two more skiers came by and said the cars were making weird noises as they went over Tower No. 4. Bemis telephoned patrolman Roger Hesseltine, who was manning the telephone and radio console at the summit. Hesseltine phoned a maintenance foreman to report the noise.
At approximately the same time, two gondola operators at Eagle's Nest—Richard Broeker and Tom Sutton—were getting the first puzzled and anxious reports from off-loading passengers. A skier told them a strand of wire was hanging from one of the gondola cables at Tower 4. "He was not alarmed," Broeker recalled. He and Sutton thought it might be a strand of grease or a length of string. This sort of thing had been reported before.
But back down the cable line, passengers began to feel that something was radically wrong. Skier Stewart Evans recalled, "Our car bounced five or six times as it approached Tower 4. We all exclaimed and looked up. We noted the cable was frayed. I was first out of the car at the top and immediately told the operator. He said, 'We know it,' and went on to unload the next car. I proceeded outside to put on my skis. Then the lift stopped."
There had been still another report of a violent bounce at Tower 4, and Sutton had switched off the gondola machinery. As a matter of routine, he took the last passenger who had reported the trouble into the ski patrol office to talk with patrolmen Dennis Mikottis and Dave Stanish. Mikottis recalled, "The passenger said the strand was hanging down 30 to 40 feet. I asked him if it was on the side the cars were coming up on and he said, Yup.' My partner called radio control to tell them the gondola was shut down—that's routine. I got on the radio and started calling for a maintenance man to contact me by telephone. I didn't want to say anything about unraveling cables on the radio because the system goes all over the mountain. I didn't want to start any false alarms. We logged this report at 9:23 a.m. We were told to stand by, and 10 seconds later we had another call from dispatcher Hesseltine who said, 'We have a report that two cars are on the ground near Tower 5.' We immediately went down to rescue."
Bill Brandsetter, 19, a skier from New Jersey, recalled, "Through the trees I heard, then saw, a gondola car bang hard against the tower, veer away, then slam against it again. I saw sparks and an odd white powder, like snow. I watched as it shuddered and then, like an apple from a tree—no, like a feather—the car simply separated and fell slowly. Then a second car approached and slammed into the jammed arm on the tower. There were people inside. They beat their fists against the glass. Then it, too, fell. I didn't see it hit. The trees obscured my view...."
Ira Potashner, who was in Car No. 25, the first to fall, recalled, "We reached one tower and the noise was much greater than usual and there was a lot more buffeting. Then we hit the next tower and it seemed as if we got stuck. There was a great deal of shaking, almost as if we were in a container that somebody was shaking. There was a lot of screaming inside...and we were dropping!"
Greg Dietrich, another skier in Car No. 25, recalled, "The ride started to get really rough. It made us all look up at Eagle's Nest, thinking, hoping, that we could make it there. We all thought we could. Then we approached the next tower, and the car started banging against it. The car banged against it and slid back and banged against it again and slid back and banged against it again; like all the windows were busting out and everything."
Meanwhile, Gene Reese and the others in Car No. 60 were taking an awful buffeting over the unraveled cable at Tower 4. "The whole car was just jumping up and down, vibrating and making one hellish commotion," he recalled. "I turned around to see if I could make out a number on the tower above us and just as I turned I saw it. And my sister saw it at the same time. The first car fell. It went tumbling down. Everybody in our car got panicky because by then we were really vibrating. The girls—the other girls—turned around and looked and they saw this car tumbling. They started screaming and hollering. And I yelled, 'Everybody sit down!' I said, 'Maybe they'll get it stopped!' So everybody sat down and we kept getting closer to the tower, and that other car [Car No. 67] was jammed up on it now. The thing was just ajumpin' and ajerkin'. Now I thought to myself, 'Well, maybe we'll hit that car and drive it on through the tower and then we'll be hung up. And then they'll get it shut off.' And just about that time we hit. Oh, God, did we ever hit! I saw the fiber-glass kind of shattering and then we just tipped off. We just kind of pitched over. I screamed, 'Everybody put your head between your knees!' Just about that time we smacked and we hit. That's the last thing I remember until I came to on my head."
U.S. Forest Service investigators worked for several weeks to reconstruct the sequence of events. They interviewed dozens of witnesses, workers and victims and compiled a detailed report.