Tramway quits, tourists fly

Electronic problem disrupts service, gives 150 guests, 30 employees helicopter ride to base

Posted: Sunday, July 25, 2004

Cruise ship passenger Dean Knight said he chose to ride the tram instead of a helicopter after coming ashore Friday in Juneau.

He ended up doing both after the Mount Roberts Tramway's first extended breakdown in three years.

General Manager George Reifenstein said about 150 guests and 25 to 30 employees were at or near the top of the tramway when electronic problems disrupted service for the two cars at about 10:30 a.m.

About 20 people were in the Eagle car, roughly 120 feet from the top, and six were stopped in the Raven car above the sidewalk at the bottom.

Reifenstein said it took a little more than an hour for the cars to get to the terminals. The emergency evacuation operation requires manually resetting the gear ratios to slowly move cars to their destination, he said.

To get people off the mountain, he hired helicopters from TEMSCO and NorthStar Trekking. They were flown to a parking lot downtown.

Juneau resident Mike Clemens said he is a regular tram customer and rode up Friday at about 9:30 a.m. He was in the last group flown down, touching down at 3:40 p.m. He counted 35 flights.

"It was really well managed," he said, describing the company's response to the incident. He said a few people decided to walk down on a trail.

Randy Hoch of Reading, Pa., said when he learned the tram had a problem, he decided to catch up with friends who had planned to walk down.

"It's quite a walk," he said. "We were saying we were glad it wasn't raining."

Saturday's Southeastt Road Runners Mount Roberts Tram Run worked the opposite way, with people running up the trail and getting a ride down.

Reifenstein said he was happy to get the equipment operating by the end of Friday to accommodate the event, although a barbecue scheduled for Friday had to be postponed one night.

Friday morning's problem took time to diagnose, he said. It ended up being in the pressure-reading electronics in the system. Parts had to be replaced. He said to operate the tram Saturday required a worker to closely watch pressure gauges while the tram was running.

Reifenstein said 15 pounds of replacement electronics from Grand Junction, Colo., were scheduled to be delivered Saturday.

Clemens said some stranded people expressed concern about making connections with other tours. But he enjoyed watching the helicopters take off and land.

Reifenstein said the tram has only once had to fly people off the mountain because of a breakdown.

On July 19, 2001, a blown fuse shut down the tramway for two hours, and helicopters were hired to fly 62 people down to catch a departing cruise ship, the Empire reported the next day.

Friday, everyone was offered a flight down, including some who, it turned out, had come up on their own, Reifenstein said. A few people who use wheelchairs were brought down first. Next were elderly guests.

Safety is always the priority at the tramway, Reifenstein said. Staff works on crisis management so that employees will be prepared when things go wrong.

The breakdown disappointed visitors who weren't even stuck. Lisa Mauro, from Westchester County, N.Y., said she thought she had gotten back from whale watching in time for the tram trip.

"Then they said they weren't running," Mauro said.

She ended up with a refund instead of a ride. Others made the most of it.

"We got a free helicopter ride," said Knight, from Ottawa Lake, Mich. Almost 84, he said, he might have walked down - 30 or 40 years ago.

Speaking back at the Sun Princess cruise ship, he said it was a warm, sunny day at the top of the tramway, but the staff brought out umbrellas and ice water, which he took advantage of.

"It saved us money, because she couldn't go shopping," he said, motioning to his wife, Florence.

Florence Knight said it was still a good day in Juneau.

"We just missed lunch, that's all," she said.

Her husband said he would have had a better time if he had brought a cell phone.

"I would have called the kids and told them we were stuck (on a mountain in Alaska) and to come and get us," he joked.

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