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Breakdown Strands Tram Passengers

Tangled cable forces a 4 1/2-hour halt to Palm Springs attraction as riders are suspended above a mountain slope. An employee manages to free the car.

October 07, 2003|Christine Hanley and Monte Morin | Times Staff Writers

PALM SPRINGS — Two tram cars carrying a total of 53 people hung motionless above the slopes of towering Mount San Jacinto for 4 1/2 hours Monday after a cable tangled and abruptly stopped the ride.

A car operator in one of the gondolas was credited with saving the day when he crawled onto the roof and used a knife-like tool to slash a tangled strand of the cable, finally setting the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway back in motion at about 7 p.m.

People stranded in the cars and at the restaurant above described scenes of boredom, rather than panic. Inside the cars, riders chatted on cell phones as they tried to make themselves comfortable on the checkered steel grating of the gondola floor. Neither of the gondolas have seats.

"It never got serious," said Joanne Foick, a passenger in the car headed up the mountain. "There wasn't any swaying. It was not like we were dangling. So unless you were panicky, it was OK."

One passenger did become agitated, at one point pounding the window of the car with his fist and shouting, "I'm getting off no matter what."

"We were getting annoyed at him," said passenger Pam Howe.

She also said they were "getting worried about spending the night. The metal plate isn't easy to sit on .... We had lots of room, so if we had to stay the night, we could have lain down. It just got so boring."

The cars hang between 150 and 600 feet above the slope during their 15-minute ride.

The hours-long breakdown also stranded about 140 people in the Hilltop Restaurant atop the mountain. Some said the realization that there was a serious problem came gradually.

"Everyone thought the tram would get going right away," said Kurt Bohmer. "Then one hour passed, then another." Playing cards at the gift shop sold out during the wait.

The tramway came to a halt at about 2:25 p.m., when one of six strands in a steel rescue cable came loose and touched the tram's main cable, triggering a safety device that stops the ride. But as the two tram cars slowed to a halt, the errant stand of cable got caught in the 28-wheel carriage system above the car that was headed downhill.

"It's like when a vacuum cleaner sucks up a string and it gets wrapped around inside," said Tim Jones, a lead supervisor for the Mount San Jacinto Winter Park Authority, the agency that runs the tram. "The downside is you can't flip the tram car over like a vacuum cleaner to unwind it."

Instead, car operator Scott Barrick crawled on top of the car through an emergency door and pulled out a tool similar to a pocketknife and a two-way radio. Describing the situation to mechanics in the base station, Barrick set about trying to untangle the stray cable strand. Barrick had to make numerous cuts to the strand, which was about as thick as a pencil, and then fish the pieces out of the wheel housing. About four hours later, he was finished and the cars resumed moving.

"I would say he saved the day," Jones said.

Tram officials notified the county Sheriff's Department, in case they needed to evacuate the restaurant by helicopter. Military helicopters also were put on standby if needed to lower mechanics onto the cars to free them.

Sauti Dave, 34, of New York was riding up the mountain with her sister and 14-month-old niece when the ride stopped. The baby and three other children aboard weathered the crisis well, she said.

"She was great," Dave said of her niece. "We had diapers and baby food and everything we needed. Mom was well-prepared. I knew we would move eventually."

The conductor in her car, who was not the one called upon to make repairs, "was excellent, he was really calm," she said. "He should be commended."

When the car finally arrived at the top of the mountain, restaurant customers welcomed the passengers with a standing ovation.

Howe and her husband had spent more than four hours of their 31st anniversary in that car.

"Number 30 was better," she said.

Nancy Nichols, a tramway spokeswoman, said the incident marked the longest span of time the tram had been stalled since being overhauled in 2000.

The tram's lower station is at an elevation of 2,643 feet. The upper station is at an elevation of 8,516 feet. The tram gondolas travel a distance of 12,780 feet to gain 5,873 feet of elevation. The average gradient is 26 degrees, but rises to a maximum of 42 degrees.

The tram was closed for 11 days in March after inspectors found possibly defective welds on one of the towers. Reinforcement plates were installed on all the towers as a corrective measure.

Ten years ago, the tram was closed to the public for several days after inspectors found a problem with one of the cables.

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Times staff writer Eric Malnic contributed to this story.

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