Accident Prompted Statewide Safety Checks
Updated: 12:35 pm CST February 3, 2012
MERRIMAC, Wis. — The thrill, speed and intensity of snowboarding are what drew Aaron Matteson to the sport, but ironically, the only time he’s ever been hurt had little to do with its inherent risk.“You’re just anxious to get to the top, so you can actually do the fun part and go down,” Matteson said about his thoughts as he boarded chairlift No. 3 at Devil’s Head Ski Resort in Merrimac in December 2009. Not long after the lift started taking Matteson and a friend up the hill, it stopped. As the pair sat there, neither was particularly concerned. “It’s one of those things that you just don’t ever think about anything happening,” he said. Then, the lift began to move backward, first slowly, but it quickly picked up pace. “We looked over our shoulders and we saw they were pulling the brake and we just automatically figured we’re going to stop,” Matteson said. It didn’t. The chairs were moving much faster now, and as the lift moved backward through the lift house at the bottom, something caught Matteson’s snowboard. He had one foot strapped in, and it wrenched his leg and then his body to one side. Matteson said he remembers the chairs as they rounded the bull wheel at the bottom swinging out at a sharp angle. That’s when he was thrown facedown in the snow. “All of a sudden, I can feel the chairs breaking off and falling down on the ground next to me, and I’m like — I don’t know what’s going to happen,” he said. YouTube videos show how violent a rollback can become. A training tape posted to the site shows the chairs swinging far out to one side, ultimately breaking off and being tossed to the ground as the lift picks up speed with the heavy chairs on the “up” side. Matteson looked for his window to escape the chaos, hoping to make it out when there was a gap between chairs on the backward-moving lift. “Immediately as soon as I started to run, I just collapsed right to the ground, and that’s when I actually realized that something had happened and I was actually in pain,” Matteson said. Doctors ultimately diagnosed Matteson with a partial tear of his MCL, one of the four major ligaments in the knee. He was one of 14 people hurt in the accident at Devil’s Head that night. “A lot of my friends, they literally jumped off, and if I would have known what was going to happen, I would have jumped off in a second,” he told WISC-TV. After it was all said and done, Matteson was left to wonder, could the accident have been avoided? An investigation by the Wisconsin Department of Commerce, which handled such matters at the time, revealed that an automatic braking device meant to prevent such a rollback was recommended in a preseason inspection a month prior, but was never installed. It also noted that a lift operator had failed to perform all of the proper safety checks at the start of his shift, along with routine mistakes in maintenance and training logs. Inspectors also questioned the quality of training at the resort. Devil’s Head was never cited or fined by the state because of the accident, though, as a result, the department conducted a survey of the 298 ski lifts in the state of Wisconsin. Ultimately, it determined eight lifts in the state were of a similar style to the one that failed at Devil’s Head and required they all have automatic rollback prevention devices installed. Some had already installed them prior to the accident. In 2010, Devil’s Head completely replaced the failed chairlift No. 3. Matteson reached a confidential settlement with the resort, but citing other pending litigation, its manager, Joe Vittengl, told WISC-TV he couldn’t really comment. He did tell the station Devil’s Head routinely works to improve equipment at the resort, along with staffing, safety procedures, and customer service. Matteson didn’t need surgery, “just lots, and lots of rehab.” He still has occasional knee pain, but has been able to slowly get back to snowboarding. “Since the day after it happened, I was just like ‘God, I want to go snowboarding,'” he said. He won’t go back to Devil’s Head, though. He says he holds nothing against them, but he’d rather go someplace else. His hope is by telling his story now, it will remind other ski resorts in Wisconsin and across the country that safety needs to be a top priority. He wants other skiers and snowboarders to only go down hill the way you’re supposed to.
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