Copyright © 2022 Albuquerque Journal
The new year started out on a high note – so to speak – for Amber Santos.
The 31-year-old, an employee of the TEN 3 restaurant on Sandia Peak, was one of 21 people stuck on two tram cars for 15 hours after the cables got tangled in bad weather Friday night.
“There was a time when I thought I was going to die on the tram, which is a nightmare in itself,” Santos told the Journal hours after she was rescued along with 18 fellow employees and two tram operators.
Michael Donovan, general manager of Sandia Peak Aerial Tramway, said “very challenging conditions” in the form of a mix of humidity and low temperatures led the e-cable to ice over.
The e-cable, which is used to transport a carriage to the tram cars for maintenance, was weighed down by ice and twisted over the track cables, causing the stoppage. Donovan said the issue will be fixed “as soon as weather permits” and there was never any chance of the tram cars falling.
“While we’ve had rope-over incidents, none of them involved our guests or employees,” he said, calling the situation “very unusual.”
In the high-flying rescue that ensued, crews climbed the second tram tower, came through the roof hatch and helped Santos and others rappel to the ground. Then a Bernalillo County Sheriff’s Office helicopter shuttled them, a few at a time, to safety.
Afterward, crews also had to rescue a lone tram employee stuck on the second car in much of the same fashion.
BCSO spokeswoman Jayme Fuller said the man had initially been stuck “in a pretty bad area” hundreds of feet off the ground between the second tower and peak, and crews had to “inch” the cable “as little as possible” to get his car closer to the second tower. He was rescued at 4:15 p.m.
“We’ve trained for scenarios like this a ton, but I’m not aware of any this large or this big with this many people,” Fuller said.
BCSO aired video of the separate rescues, hours apart, on its Facebook page. The agency collaborated with Bernalillo County Fire Department and New Mexico State Police in the rescue.
Although scenarios like this are rare, something similar happened in June 1973 when 41 people were rescued from the tram by crane and helicopter after being stuck for 24 hours following a similar rope-over incident.
Authorities were first alerted to Friday’s stoppage, according to Fuller, when the first 911 call came in at 2:11 a.m. Santos found that strange, as she said they first became stuck around 10 p.m.
She said the TEN 3 employees were rushed out of the restaurant around 8:45 p.m. due to increasingly bad weather. But it was too late.
Santos said the trip down in the gondola – bursting with employees, two metal carts and several trash bags – was windy and bumpy with zero visibility.
She said they stopped near the first tower and then backed up to the second tower due to some issue with the location of the other tram car. They didn’t move again.
Santos said at midnight she held up her phone with the countdown and they rang in the new year together. She said they initially planned to ring it in at Howie’s, a local bar.
Colleen Elvidge, who started at the restaurant a few weeks ago, said she is no fan of heights and, although she had been on the tram many times, “this time was just a little different.”
“The crazy storm that was coming in, it was sleet, then it was rain and snow, then it was a whiteout. It was pretty sketchy and we were swaying a lot. It did get very scary and it’s only because it’s a small box,” she said.
Elvidge said those onboard joked about last wishes and wills as they dangled and swayed, trying to keep it light among the morbid possibilities.
“We all get along – (we) made jokes – talking about ‘what if?’ like ‘well I have life insurance, my kids will be fine,'” she said. “We’re kind of stuck there, so we didn’t have a choice.”
Santos said, at first, it was “kind of funny” but the minutes turned into hours and temperatures dropped to below 25 degrees. She said the meager provisions of space blankets, snacks like Lifesavers and water bottles didn’t help much.
By 4 a.m., any revelry was long gone and Santos said it was quiet in the car. Ice coated the windows and condensation pooled on the ceiling.
“We were all really there for each other. We’re all friends – but you could feel the tension in the car like ‘when are they coming? Is someone coming?'” she said. “It was more of an anxious feeling but still trying to keep it light and not entice chaos.”
Santos said around 9:30 a.m. rescuers climbed through the roof hatch and gave them water, provisions and “actual blankets.” After getting harnessed up, she was the third to rappel down.
“It was a (expletive) experience, being stuck on the tram but if there was a silver lining – it was rappelling down from the tram car. It was a pretty cool experience to do that,” she said.
For Elvidge, the most exciting part was the helicopter ride.
“We thought we were going to have to hike down,” she said.
Santos said having her feet touch solid ground was emotional.
“When you’re dangling for 15 hours in the air – I don’t know – it’s just a surreal experience,” she said.
Santos said the ordeal has given her pause to ride the tram again and leaves questions as to why they ended up stuck in the first place.
She thinks more could’ve, and should’ve, been done.
“I just wished there were more precautions in place for this and there was more provisions especially with the weather, they knew the weather was going to be bad – why was this not thought about earlier in the day?” Santos said. “I understand it’s New Year’s, it’s a restaurant day but employees are people, too. Yes we work for you, but our lives don’t revolve around the job.”
Bill Howley, general manager of TEN 3, was one of those onboard.
Howley said he is ecstatic that everyone made it home and everyone from the tram owners and rescue crews did a great job throughout the ordeal.
“They made sure we were warm, we were hydrated, we had food and they got us off the mountain fast as they could when they got to us,” he said.
Howley said the incident brought him and the team closer.
“Every restaurant has people that don’t like each other, however, in this particular case we were forced to, for lack of a better term, cuddle – take care of each other, making sure that everyone was OK and safe,” he said.
As far as 2023 goes, the bar is set high for Santos.
“I don’t know how I’m going to top it next year,” she said with a laugh.
Journal city editor Martin Salazar contributed to this report.