More than a month after the fatal accident on the set of “Midnight Rider,” a key question for the homicide investigation is whether the production had been granted permission to film on the Georgia railroad tracks and trestle where camera assistant Sarah Jones was killed.
CSX, the owner of the railroad, has told investigators that producers of the indie film were denied permission to work on the tracks. The search for answers is likely to hinge on the statement of location manager Charley Baxter and the information he gave to director Randall Miller, producer Jody Savin and unit production/manager Jay Sedrish.
Baxter’s attorney, Kirk Schroder of Richmond, Va., said that Baxter is “heartbroken” over the tragic accident but could not speak publicly about the circumstances because he signed a standard confidentiality agreement when he joined the production. “He is absolutely honoring his contractual obligations, and he is fully cooperating with investigators,” Schroder told Variety.
While it’s known that the investigation is focusing on the question of who put the crew on the bridge, sheriff’s investigators in Wayne County, Ga., have revealed few details. According to the sheriff’s incident report, CSX said it had an email between Baxter and CSX employee Carla Groleau that could verify that “Midnight Rider” was denied permission.
Baxter’s account is likely to go a long way toward determining who faces civil suits or criminal charges. Baxter, an industry yeteran, was location manager on the 1999 film “October Sky,” which featured a railroad sequence. Art Miller, who worked as a railroad consultant on that film, calls Baxter “a good man” who knows about working with trains.
If Baxter warned producers that they did not have permission to be on the tracks and their plan to place a bed on the tracks and that a shoot on the bridge was dangerous, that would likely increase the legal jeopardy for those who did make the decision to shoot there.
“He and I both believe that when the facts come out, his conduct will speak for itself, and he certainly will stand by his conduct,” Schroder said.
Baxter was not at the location on the day of the accident, and none of the location unit — Baxter, assistant location manager Stephanie Humphreys and location assistant Jonette Page — were called to the set that day, according to the call sheet. Baxter’s account of the events leading up to the shoot will likely reveal whether their absence was significant.
Jones, the second camera assistant, was killed and seven others were injured in the crash. The accident occurred when a train arrived at the bridge during shooting of a dream sequence in the Gregg Allman biopic featuring stars William Hurt and Wyatt Russell. The sequence involved putting a hospital bed on the tracks.
The crew was warned by first assistant director Hillary Schwartz that a train might arrive during shooting, and if so, they would have a minute to clear the tracks and get off the bridge once they heard a whistle. When they did hear a whistle, they did not have enough time to clear, and the train caught them on the bridge. The train hit the bed, shattering it. Some of the crew were hit by shrapnel, including Jones, who was knocked into the path of the train and killed. Others suffered broken bones.
Rayonier, the paper company that owns the land surrounding the tracks at the accident site, has confirmed it gave the production permission to be on the land. However Rayonier does not own the tracks or have authority to grant access to them. According to the sheriff’s incident report, after the accident a CSX employee asked Sedrish if he had permission to be on the trestle or tracks and Sedrish replied, “That’s complicated.”
In the days following the accident, Nick Gant of Meddin Studios, which provided production services for “Midnight Rider,” said no corners were cut on the production and CSX was not being honest with local officials.
One of the lingering repercussions of this accident is likely to be a greater focus on who is responsible for saying “No” on sets when confronted with a dangerous situation. Crew members are generally reluctant to say no for fear they will not be rehired in the future. But many feel they are routinely put in dangerous situations.
Under the Directors Guild of America collective bargaining agreement, the first assistant director is responsible for holding safety meetings on the set and reporting safety problems — a reform adopted following the fatal accident on the set of “The Twilight Zone” in 1982. Schwartz, the first A.D. on “Midnight Rider,” has not spoken publicly. According to a crew member who asked not to be identified, there were safety announcements but no formal safety meeting on the set of “Midnight Rider” before the crew went onto the trestle.
In a statement, DGA declined to comment specifically on the “Midnight Rider” case but deflected attention away from Miller and Schwartz, noting that responsibility for safety lies with employers. Miller’s production company, Unclaimed Freight, was the company of record on the film.
In addition to the Wayne County sheriff, a number of agencies are conducting investigations, including the National Transportation Safety Board and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. The Federal Railroad Administration is following the other two federal agencies. Jones’ family has retained the firm of Harris Penn Lowry, based in Savannah and Atlanta, with Jeffrey Harris as lead attorney. The firm is conducting its own investigation into the accident.
Wayne County Sheriff John Carter last week declined to comment on the findings in their inquiry, other than to say that there were a few other witnesses remaining to be interviewed.
Mark Spaulding, a spokesman for the district attorney in the Brunswick Judicial Circuit, said that they have yet to receive the case from the sheriff. It is still unclear if the D.A. will wait until an investigation was completed by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration before deciding if there is any criminal liability in the case, he said.
Michael D’Aquino, a spokesman for OSHA’s Atlanta office, said that in case of a serious injury or fatal incident, “the cases surrounding the incident are thoroughly investigated.”
“If violations are identified, facts to support the violations are documented and cited,” he said. “A closing conference is held with the employer to discuss the hazards, apparent violations and possible abatement measures.” OSHA may issue citations within six months of any violations.
An NTSB spokesman said its investigations typically take up to a year.