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Texas mom dies on a Colorado ski lift; Could it have been prevented?

Lift reopened -- only to close again 8 days later
Posted: 2:20 PM, Feb 02, 2017
Updated: 2017-02-03 16:16:22Z

DENVER -- On the morning of Dec. 29, Kelly Huber, 40, of San Antonio and her two daughters, ages 9 and 12, got on the Quick Draw Express chairlift at Ski Granby Ranch, expecting a ride that would take them to the top of the hill.

They never got there.

It’s now been more than a month since the Texas mother and her daughters were thrown from the chairlift, and questions have been raised on whether the accident could have been prevented.

A witness detailed the crash to Denver7, explaining the Hubers' quad chair began swinging wildly.

"I noticed it started swinging side-by-side sideways," Allen McGirl, who sat three chairs behind the family, said. "Then it was swinging sideways, and then they got to the next pole and the actual chair lift hit the pole."

When Chair 58 struck Tower 5, the mother and her girls were flung 25 feet down onto hard-packed snow. Huber was fatally injured and pronounced dead at a local hospital. The girls were injured but survived. 

"My heart sunk and it hit me very hard," McGirl said.

He said the lift lurched erratically during the suspected malfunction.

"Was it jerky? A little bit jerky, yeah," McGirl said. "They had to stop, slow it down, go forward."

McGirl said it appeared the family did not have the chair's safety bar down.

But neither the ski resort nor state or police investigators held the family responsible for what happened.

"The circumstances indicated that environmental factors, weather, and the occupants of Chair #58 did not contribute to the cause of the incident," the Colorado Passenger Tramway Safety Board said in a preliminary report on Jan. 9.

— 'A rare dynamic event' —

Instead, engineers involved in the Tramway Board's investigation "identified issues within the chairlift's electrical drive/control system that contributed to a rare dynamic event that occurred at the time of the incident," according to the state board's Interim Operating Agreement with Ski Granby Ranch.

State officials said they can't provide a more detailed description of what happened on the chairlift than "a rare dynamic event" or discuss their suspicions about what went wrong.

"We are working as quickly as possible while still preserving the integrity of the investigation to get you the answers that you're seeking," said Karen McGovern, deputy director of the state Department of Regulatory Agencies, which includes the Tramway Board.

Jim Chalat, a veteran Colorado attorney with decades of experience questioning safety at state ski resorts, said something went terribly wrong with the lift system.

"The reason people pay for a lift ticket is to get a safe ride up. This was not a safe ride up," Chalat told Denver7 chief investigative reporter Tony Kovaleski.

During a month-long investigation, Denver7 Investigates dug through 2,000 state inspection records for chairlifts across Colorado. State regulators waived fees for providing the documents to ensure public transparency.

— State officials inspected chairlift 24 days before deadly collision —

The records show the Tramway Board inspected the Quick Draw Express on Dec. 5 — just 24 days before the tragedy.

During testing of the 16-year-old chairlift, the inspector watched as a flat tire caused a chair to stall, resulting in a collision. State experts said the tires function to slow and support chairs as they turn around in the terminals at the bottom and top of the lift.

"This lift still has many of the original tires which are severely weathered, and should be replaced as soon as possible," the inspector wrote. A Ski Granby Ranch official replied, "Problem tire replaced with new (one) and replacing other worn tires (as) soon as possible."

The inspector also noted what appeared to be a minor issue with the chairlift's new electric motor drive meshing with the original control system and brake control module.

That is the same system that's now suspected in contributing to Chair 58's erratic swinging when it struck the lift tower.

"A very slight rollback does occur on all loaded lift starts, and should be rectified when the new control system is installed in 2017," the inspector wrote on Dec. 5.

"I did not observe any unreasonable safety hazards," the inspector concluded. The issue with the electric motor drive was considered so benign that the inspector cited it as a "comment" -- to remind the resort to install the new control system in the summer of 2017 -- and not a serious "deficiency."

In an exclusive interview, Kovaleski asked Larry Smith, the state's supervisory tramway engineer, about the inspection.

"In the December 5th report, were there any red flags that made you say -- now that you look back on it -- there could be a problem?"

"Nothing in that report, nothing in the operation of the lift in the first few days that we saw," replied Smith, who is leading the state's investigation into what went wrong at Ski Granby Ranch.

Eleven days after the inspection, the state licensed the lift for operation.

"Help me understand, when you license a lift, does that mean you believe it is safe?"  Kovaleski asked.

"Absolutely yes," Smith said.

"And 13 days later the fatality happened," Kovaleski said.

"It did," Smith replied. "The inspection covers as much as we possibly can." But that "does not guarantee" that something won't "happen after the inspection," he added.

— Colorado has one of the nation's best ski lift inspection programs —

It's important to note that Colorado has the best ski lift inspection programs in the country.

"We're the only state that requires professional engineers for our inspectors," Smith said.

"Lift safety is something that's taken extremely serious in Colorado," the chief engineer added. "It's been 31 years since we've had a lift-related failure fatality. That's three billion rides...I think says a lot about our program."

But Chalat, the attorney who holds ski resorts accountable for unsafe conditions, said the state can't overlook one possibility.

"The concern is that this was a miss by the Tramway Board. Certainly it was a miss during the inspection," he said.

There was a key potential warning sign that may have been ignored.

Facebook post cites 'mechanical issues' on ski lift two days before fatality

Denver7 found that, two days before Kelly Huber died, a skier from Littleton made this post on Ski Granby Ranch's Facebook page: "What's going on with the Quick Draw lift? Seems like it is having frequent mechanical issues?"

"As an attorney, what does that Facebook post say to you?" Kovaleski asked Chalat.

"It's evidence. It could be evidence of wrongdoing. It could be evidence of...having notice of a dangerous condition," the attorney said.

Kovaleski asked Smith, "What was your read on that post? Some would say it's a smoking gun."

"Looking back, it's always hindsight is 20/20," Smith said. But he cautioned that there's other conditions that could have caused what the Facebook poster called "frequent mechanical issues."

The Quick Draw Express had opened during a stretch of frigid weather, which can cause the air pressure in the tires on ski lifts to "drop dramatically," Smith said.

This leads to the lift's anti-collision safety systems having problems. "So they kick in and they shut the lift down," he added.

It's also a beginner-intermediate chairlift, Smith continued, where inexperienced skiers and snow-boarders can have trouble exiting the lift. All these things contribute to a lift having frequent stops and starts, he added.

"We did see that (Facebook post). It's explainable by normal operations and normal temperatures that we saw. But it's not something that we're looking at as part of the investigation," Smith said.

Denver7 Investigates learned Ski Granby Ranch did not and was not required to notify the state about the concerns raised in that Facebook post, and the skier's questions have not been investigated by the state.

But Ski Granby Ranch did reply to the skier's Facebook questions -- just hours after Kelly Huber's death. "This could be the amount of traffic at the resort. We'll keep an eye on things and appreciate your feedback," a resort employee wrote. The post has been removed from the resort's Facebook page.

"Have you talked to the person who made that post?" Kovaleski asked Smith.

"No I have not," the supervisory engineer replied.

"Should you?" Kovaleski asked?

"We talked to several witnesses that gave us some statements," Smith said.

Kovaleski asked Chalat, "When you see that Facebook post, and you know the fatality occurred two days later, do you question if Ski Granby Ranch made a mistake by keeping that lift open?"

"Oh, there's no question that they made a mistake, and I am sure it's one they regret," Chalat said.

And when you look at the timeline of events, it answers some questions while raising others.

The state conducted its inspection of the Quick Draw Express on Dec. 5. It issued a license for the lift to begin operating on Dec. 16. The Facebook question was posted December 27, and two days later, Kelly Huber and her daughters were thrown from the chairlift.

— State allows lift to reopen - only to be shut down eight days later —

Decisions by state regulators following Huber's death are also worthy of questions.

The officials and the ski resort suspect the cause of the chairlift malfunction was in the chairlift's electrical drive/control system. Ski Granby Ranch went as far as to say in a Jan. 20 new release, "Preliminary investigation has revealed that the issue that likely caused the incident was the independent contractor’s modification to the lift’s electrical drive/control system" before the ski season.

State regulators gave the green light for the lift to reopen on Jan. 10 -- operating on backup diesel power with the electric drive disconnected -- even though the state's investigation into what went wrong was not completed.

And just eight days later, the state shut down the Quick Draw Express on Jan. 18. The second shutdown in less than a month. This time state officials said it was due to "unusual/irregular conditions in the performance of the diesel prime mover system."

"They're lucky there was not another accident during that eight-day period," Chalat said, "because it was obviously unsafe for some period of time after the lift was reopened and before it was closed down again."

Kovaleski asked Smith: "Should that lift have been reopened on the 10th of January?"

"We did not see any indication that there was a tie in between what we saw later and when we allowed them to reopen," Smith replied.

"Were skiers and boarders at greater risk during those eight days?" Kovaleski asked.

"No, not at all," Smith answered.

In press releases since the fatal accident, Ski Granby Ranch has sent its condolences to the Huber family. It has also pointed out that this is the first incident of its kind in the resort's 22 years of operation and the first fatal incident in the 16 years the Quick Draw Express has operated. But the resort's general manager declined multiple requests to answer the questions raised by Denver7's investigation, saying Ski Granby will wait until the state wraps up its review.

Smith, the chief tramway engineer, said the Quick Draw Express tragedy was an isolated incident, and he has no concerns about a similar malfunction occurring at other Colorado chairlifts.

"So, two problems in 20 days, one leads to the death of a Texas mom, the other shuts it down (a second time). What does that say?" Kovaleski asked.

"You'll have to wait for the investigation to be complete and the report at that point in time...I can't go into more detail," Smith said. The state expects to issue its final report in about a month.

Last weekend, the state once again approved reopening the Quick Draw Express -- for the second time since Kelly Huber’s death.

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