Fatal Colorado chairlift fall was caused by modified drive control system, rapid speed changes, final report says

Quickdraw Express at Ski Granby Ranch.

Changes to a drive control system and rapid speed changes made by an operator led a Texas mother and her two young girls to be thrown about 25 feet off a Ski Granby Ranch chairlift in December 2016, state investigators said in a final report on the incident.

The 40-year-old woman — Kelly Huber — was killed and her two children hurt in what the report said was an “unprecedented” sequence of events that none of those who reviewed the case had ever seen before.

“No one on the investigative team has ever witnessed or heard of a similar event,” said the 151-page report, released Thursday afternoon. “Likewise, literature does not describe such an event.”

The Colorado Passenger Tramway Safety Board report, released more than four months after the fatal fall, squarely places blame for the incident on a lift malfunction and ends speculation about an incident that gripped the ski industry. Huber’s death was the first related to a lift malfunction in the U.S. since 1993 and the first death from a chairlift fall in Colorado since 2002.

Huber was pronounced dead the day of the fall — Dec. 29, 2016 — at Middle Park Medical Center in Granby, where she was taken about an hour after being ejected from her chair when it slammed into a lift tower. The drive control system at the center of the incident had been installed less than a month before.

Witnesses told state investigators that the chair Huber and her daughters were riding on — chair 58 — began to violently sway as it approached lift tower five, according to the final report. When it got to the tower, the two collided.

The report also says witnesses reported the lift made several sudden accelerations and decelerations in the moments before Huber and her children fell from the lift. State investigators said the speed changes were secondary to changes in the drive control system that possibly created pulses of energy along the rope line and “could explain the rope instability.”

“Until the new drive was installed in December 2016, there had been no major electrical changes since the lift’s construction,” the report said.

The report added: “It is the conclusion of the investigation team that the selected tuning of the drive combined with the natural harmonics of the lift system, along with rapid speed changes, caused the rope instability resulting in (chair) 58 contacting tower five.”

The Grand County Coroner ruled Huber died from blunt force trauma to her torso and a traumatic rupture of her aorta. The four-person, high-speed Quickdraw Express lift, built by Grand Junction-based Leitner-Poma in 1999, was closed after Huber’s death.

Ski Granby Ranch said work by an independent contractor on the lift’s electrical drive control system before the start of the ski season likely led to the conditions that caused Huber’s death. The resort said the contractor is not affiliated with Leitner-Poma. Also, the resort said it “had followed all prescribed protocols in operating the lift.”

The ski area has not released the name of the independent contractor.

Ski Granby Ranch CEO Melissa Cipriani said in a news release that the Quickdraw Express lift was load-tested Dec. 5, before the ski season began Dec. 16. She said the Huber family’s fall was the first incident of its kind in the resort’s 22 years of operation and that the lift has been operating safely since its installation.

Cipriani, when reached by The Denver Post on Thursday, did not immediately comment on the final report.

The report says that due to the unprecedented nature of the incident, investigation and analysis of what led up to Huber’s death will “likely continue for years.”

Of the more than 250 chairlift falls in Colorado since 2002, most have been attributed to skier error, according to state data.

According to an October report by the National Ski Areas Association, the last death on a chairlift attributed to a malfunction was in 1993. The trade group also said from 1973 to October, there were just 12 deaths attributed to chairlift malfunctions.

During that 43-year span, the NSAA says, an estimated 16.7 billion lift rides were taken by skiers and snowboarders. As of the 2015-16 ski season, the annual fatality rate per 100 million miles traveled on ski lifts was 0.14.

In 1976, two cars from Vail’s 7-year-old gondola — each carrying six skiers — plummeted 125 feet, killing four people in one of the most deadly lift incidents in the United States. In 1985, a bullwheel at Keystone Resort failed, sending waves down the line that threw 60 people off the Teller Lift, two of whom later died from their injuries.

The ski industry has stressed since Huber’s death that chairlift falls — especially fatal ones — are extremely rare considering the millions of rides taken each year.

Huber’s then-9-year-old daughter was taken to Middle Park before being flown by Flight for Life to Children’s Hospital Colorado after the fall.

Her other daughter, who was 12, was treated at Middle Park and released.

Huber, who lived in San Antonio, was vacationing in Colorado with her daughters and other family members at the time of the fall, authorities say.

This is a developing story that will be updated as more information becomes available.

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