Videos taken by eyewitnesses showed terrifying scenes of the chairs speeding in reverse and smashing together at the lower terminal. Most passengers managed to leap out at the last moment, but others were flung into the snow as their chairs swung violently around the bullwheel at the lower terminal. Still others appeared caught in the pileup of chairs. All the while, mechanics struggled to bring the lift to a stop.
“Jump, jump Yulya! Somebody stop this [expletive],” screamed a man in Russian in one video of the ordeal.
Eleven people suffered injuries in the crash, most of them tourists from Russia and Ukraine, according to Georgian health officials. One Ukrainian citizen, who sustained the worst injuries, was first to be flown by helicopter to Tbilisi.
“One Ukrainian citizen has multiple broken bones,” Deputy Health Minister Zaza Sopromadze told Rustavi2 news channel. “None of the other victims have life-threatening injuries.” A Swiss citizen, who was also injured, is pregnant and has pains in her lower back, said Georgian Health Minister Davit Sergeenko.
The stricken lift, known as Sadzele, is the highest in the network of ski lifts in Gudauri, with its top station at an altitude of 3,279 meters. It underwent a routine inspection in December. “The ropeway was in top condition then,” said Sandro Shelia, director general of CA International, the company that did the inspection. Shelia said the breakdown may have been caused by the failure of the brake system.
“Representatives of the German company Doppelmayr, which constructed the lift, will arrive tomorrow and together with Georgian inspectors will examine what caused the crash,” said Economy Minister Dimitri Kumsishvili.
But officials were also downplaying the seriousness of the incident. The head of the National Tourism Association, Giorgi Chogovadze, said that no other lifts will need to be examined after the accident. “All of them are in order and this was confirmed by various inspection acts. These ski lifts were built by the world’s best specialist," he told InterPressNews.
Located a two-hour drive from Tbilisi, Gudauri is Georgia’s main claim to skiing fame, popular with both local and foreign skiers. Georgian officials have recently been championing the country's merits as host of a future Winter Olympics; the crash does not bode well for those efforts.