When 7-year-old John Henderson died last year after falling from a chairlift at Sugar Bowl Ski Resort, his family and friends mourned the North Davis Elementary School second-grader who aspired to be an inventor, appreciated books as much as he did sports, and who loved to tell a good joke.
Before long, John’s parents, UC Davis Medical Center physicians Mark Henderson and Helen Chew, channeled their grief into action, partnering with Sugar Bowl officials to create a comprehensive chairlift safety program aimed at protecting other young skiers.
Called the John Henderson Chairlift Safety Initiative, the 13-step program seeks to reduce the risk of lift accidents through measures such as cameras that monitor chairlift loading practices, seat targets and a mandatory restraining-bar lowering policy for children under 51 inches tall.
“After John died, we tried to figure out if there were contributing factors, and if something could have been done to prevent it,” Henderson said in a recent interview. “We hoped to make some type of enduring change so this type of tragedy didn’t happen to someone else.”
John, who had been skiing since the age of 4, was in his second year as a member of the Sugar Bowl ski team when he fell from the Mt. Lincoln Express chairlift on the morning of Dec. 18, 2011. An investigation into what caused the fall proved inconclusive due to few direct eyewitnesses and conflicting accounts, according to the Sugar Bowl website.
However, the probe did reveal that the lift’s safety bar had not been lowered for John and two other young ski-team members before they began their ascent, nor were they accompanied by an adult.
While investigators found no evidence of foul play or horseplay, “ultimately, our safety practices were insufficient to prevent this tragedy,” the website says. John died at a Reno hospital two days after the fall.
Some family and friends advised Chew and Henderson to take legal action against the resort, but “it just didn’t feel like the right thing to do,” Chew said. “We wanted to, if possible, do something positive in John’s memory.”
“I’m not sure what a lawsuit would accomplish,” Henderson added.
By joining forces with Sugar Bowl, the couple said, they’ve ensured that the resort has improved policies in place that will be taught to all employees and shared with other ski resorts across the country.
“We were more than willing to work with them, and honored that they wanted to work with us to take this tragedy and make something positive out of it,” said Nicole Lieberman, director of risk management at Sugar Bowl, who worked closely with Henderson and Chew during the past year to create the initiative. “It’s really quite amazing that a family that’s gone through something like that would reach out.”
Lieberman said while the resort has always followed American National Standards Institute guidelines regarding chairlift safety practices, “this is a more specific and detailed policy.”
The chairlift safety initiative appears on the Sugar Bowl website, www.sugarbowl.com, accompanied by a picture of John smiling as he rides a lift, rays of sunlight peeking through the pine trees behind him. Some highlights of the program include:
* Installation of web-based cameras at the Mt. Lincoln and Christmas Tree chairlifts — and eventually at all lifts — to monitor loading processes, lift operator practices and skier conduct. Henderson and Chew said this suggestion arose from their own work in the medical field, where cameras are used to monitor patients or videotape medical students as they learn to interview patients.
“There is technology that can not only detect a problem, but also train people to do their jobs and improve the process,” Henderson said.
* Seat targets on the Nob Hill, Christmas Tree and White Pine chairlifts — and on all lifts by January 2014 — that guide riders to the proper seating position. The idea was inspired by the “Sit on the Spot” program at Canyons Resort in Park City, Utah, which has twice won National Ski Areas Association awards for its chairlift program.
* Mandatory lowering of the chairlift restraining bar for all riders under 51 inches tall, even if they are riding with an adult.
Henderson said the height restriction idea came from Disneyland, where “if you’re below a certain height, you’re not allowed to ride a dangerous ride.” It made sense for the ski slopes as well, he said.
The initiative also addresses training, outreach, student-instructor ratios and incident investigation practices. Lieberman, who described the ski industry as a close-knit community, said other resorts are paying attention to the changes.
“They’re looking at what we’re doing and what portions of it will work for them,” she said.
Meanwhile, there are lasting tributes to John in Davis as well. Last spring, the North Davis Elementary campus unveiled a tile memorial created in his honor, and classmates planted a red oak tree on a greenbelt near his family’s home.
This past Dec. 20, John’s family, friends and classmates gathered for a celebration of his life, releasing bouquets of blue and green balloons into the sky.
Chew said the family has skied at Sugar Bowl several times since John’s death, taking along their 17-year-old son Paul, who also enjoys the sport.
“It was incredibly difficult,” Chew said. “But this was a place that John loved, and while it was very hard and painful, we wanted to keep that in mind.”
— Reach Lauren Keene at [email protected] or 530-747-8048. Follow her on Twitter @laurenkeene