SI Vault
William Oscar Johnson
December 13, 1976
Gliding jauntily above the fresh snow at Vail, the brightly colored cars packed with skiers began their ascent to the top of the Colorado resort. Then came the rumble of disaster
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December 13, 1976

The Tragedy On Gondola Ii

Gliding jauntily above the fresh snow at Vail, the brightly colored cars packed with skiers began their ascent to the top of the Colorado resort. Then came the rumble of disaster

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The report states that a lengthening strand of "track" cable had come loose at Tower 4. The cable is stationary and acts as a track for the four wheels atop each gondola. The cable is made of layers of tightly wrapped strands of steel, woven together to form the smoothest possible surface for the wheels. The weight of the gondola plus six passengers (some 1,900 pounds) had further unraveled the strand and had broken several more strands. Before the system was shut down, about 115 feet of cable had partially unraveled. These strands snagged and dragged at the wheels, causing violent shaking as each car went past.

The cars are pulled up the hill at about 8 mph by a heavily braided moving cable just below the track cable. Each car is clamped to this haul cable by steel jaws.

Several cars were pulled across the unraveled section at Tower 4 and went on up the hill. Then came the red Car No. 25 carrying the four young friends and the two men from New York. At this point the frayed cable untracked the front set of wheels on the gondola's roof. But the haul cable continued dragging Car 25 between Tower 4 and Tower 5, a distance of 1,150 feet. Here the derailed wheels jammed and the gondola could not go past Tower 5. The tremendous updrag of the haul cable kept trying to pull the car uphill. The iron jaws of the clamps loosened. The car was pulled violently against the tower, then fell back, then struck the tower again. Banging into the tower, it made dull explosive sounds that could be heard on the chair lift across nearby Born Free ski run.

Finally, the jaws broke and the heavy braided haul cable was freed. It kept moving steadily, grinding and filing against the wheel carriage. It began working as a saw, chewing through the steel support that kept the car hanging on the line.

Finally, the haul cable severed the support. Car 25 plunged into the snow below. Its sawed-off wheel carriage was left hanging, a tangled mass blocking the way through Tower 5. No more cars could move through. As they arrived they jammed up. Their clamps were wrenched loose and the haul cable started sawing away at the supports.

The next gondola in line was Car 67, carrying the three couples. It ran into the tangled carriage left when Car 25 fell. The jaws on the haul cable broke. The cable began its sawing action, steadily cutting. Then the sawing stopped—no one yet knows why—with one-eighth of an inch remaining, as the car behind it, yellow No. 60 carrying the Reeses and the three girls, glided up the cable. Now Car 67, its clamps broken, began to slide backward down the haul cable. It smashed into oncoming Car 60.

Somehow Car 67, dangling by its thread of steel, stayed aloft. But Car 60 jumped off the line. Its wheel carriage remained attached to the car top. As it fell, the weight of the carriage tipped the car over and it landed upside down in the snow 23 feet up the hill from Car 25. The impact forced the carriage through the car roof, lethally battering the passengers on their heads just as they hit the ground.

Above, Car 67 was sliding farther down the cable. Another car was rolling up toward it, but at this point the entire system was shut off. Almost gently, the two cars slapped together, then hung motionless, about 40 feet down the hill from the tangle of metal that was blocking the passage through Tower 5.

An unidentified woman skiing Born Free had watched the two cars fall. She skied to one of the emergency phones that dot the trails. Dispatcher Hesseltine took her message. She was hysterical.

Hesseltine had her repeat the message twice just to make sure. She spoke in a foreign accent and was hard to understand. Hesseltine knew that the gondola had been shut down. He radioed: "Eagle's Nest. Report two gondolas down on Tower 5. Investigate and notify please." The call was picked up by the walkie-talkies and radios of the ski patrol. Hesseltine also alerted 15 patrolmen in the room next to him. "Everybody get ready," he said. Then he called John Murphy, assistant patrol director, at the patrol office at the bottom of Lionshead. He said, "Some lady just called to say two gondolas fell-off the line."

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