UPDATE: Investigators Seek Answers to ‘Midnight Rider’ Train Accident

Gregg Allman 'Midnight Rider' accident: Investigators

A crew member was killed on set of Gregg Allman biopic

Updated 1:15 p.m. PST:

Investigators in Georgia are trying to determine the circumstances that led to a fatal train accident that killed a crew member on the set of the Gregg Allman biopic “Midnight Rider” near Savannah, Ga., on Thursday.

The victim was identified as Sarah Jones, 27, of Atlanta, according to Ed Mathis of the Wayne County Coroner’s Office. Her parents live in West Columbia, S.C.

Sources said that she was a second camera assistant who was killed when a freight train operated by CSX Corp. struck her as crew members scrambled to get out of the way. Seven other crew members were injured, according to Wayne County Sheriff’s detective Joe Gardner, who appeared at a news conference with reporters late Thursday. He said they were treating the case as a homicide “until we have more information.”

Gardner said that the production, which came from Meddin Studios in Savannah, had permission from CSX and Rayonier, the paper and forest products company that owns land in the vicinity, “to be in that general area.”

In addition to the Wayne County Sheriff’s Department in Jesup, Ga., near where the accident occurred, officials from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration are conducting an investigation, according to a spokesman for the agency in Atlanta. A spokesman with the National Transportation and Safety Administration said that they were aware of the accident, but he could not immediately say whether an investigation had been launched.

An eyewitness told Variety the picture was in its first day of shooting and the crew was filming a dream sequence on a railroad trestle when a train unexpectedly crossed the bridge.

The crew, including director Randall Miller, had been warned to expect two trains on the local bridge, one in each direction, and waited until after those two trains had passed to set up their shot, which involved placing a bed on the tracks. The railroad had also told the production that if any additional trains came, they’d hear a whistle about a minute before the train would reach the bridge.

A third train did arrive unexpectedly, blowing its whistle while the crew was on the bridge and the bed was on the track. Crew members ran toward their base camp, which was on land at one end of the bridge, using a plank walkway on the side of the trestle bridge. However in doing so they ran toward the bed. That proved disastrous. 

Miller, who also directed the 2008 film “Bottle Shock,” and a still photographer rushed to get the bed off the tracks. Miller fell onto the tracks but the still photographer pulled him off, according to the witness, saving his life. The train was unable to stop and crossed the bridge while the crew was still on the walkway and the bed was still on the tracks.

The bed was hit by the train and shattered, sending debris flying. One large piece of debris hit Jones as she was running and knocked her onto the tracks. She was then struck by the train and killed. Debris also hit and injured several other people, including one who was seriously injured and airlifted to Savannah’s Memorial Health University Medical Center.

Another person from the production also suffered injuries during the accident and was admitted to the hospital while at least two other people from the crew, none seriously injured, were treated in the emergency room at Wayne Memorial Hospital in Jesup, Ga.

Starring William Hurt, Bradley Whitford, Eliza Dushku, Zoey Deutch and Tyson Ritter,  “Midnight Rider” is set to be released by Open Road in the U.S.

Allman is also an executive producer on the film.

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  1. Dave Speace says:

    I’ve shot on a freight train in the cab while the engineer is driving the train… this is the 21st century, the train operators are in constant communication by cell phone! CSX should have told its train crews that a film crew was on the bridge… the producer, director or ad should have had CSX’s cell #s and vice versa! CSX could have had signal crews setup to give a red light to stop the train and/or traffic… until the crew was done shooting! Also, and this is the hard part and a question to ask. Did the film crew think, like it’s okay, we can just put the bed on the track and do the shot and you know, 5 or 10 minutes later we have the shot and we are done!? This is where mistakes occurred!

  2. Inexcusable and CSX would never give permission to be on a live track much less on the bridge. This was criminal and some people need to go to jail. (“The train will arrive one minute after they hear the horn”??? That is less time then you get from a street crossing gate.) That crew should never have been placed in such jeopardy.

  3. Ariel says:

    Shame on the cameraman who either didn’t ask enough obvious questions, or was complicit in this horrific event by agreeing to execute the shot. Please don’t hit me back with the “he feared for his job” response. These are highly paid artists represented by powerful agents who cherry-pick their gigs.

    • P.A. says:

      Obviously you have no actual knowledge of production. Camera people are NOT “highly paid artists represented by powerful agents who cherry-pick their gigs”. Especially a 2nd AC, who are actually very low on the ladder. Most people in production DO take any job that comes along, most of the time never even asking exactly how much we get paid until we’re actually working.

      This is a true tragedy in every sense of the word. Don’t knock the victim – or her co-workers – for this accident. Shameful.

      • ks says:

        some people just don’t care about human life, its all about fame and money this is my opinion shame on the financers and producers

      • Ariel says:

        Dear P.A. – you’re a very naive newbie if you believe your own words. DP’s are close to being above-the-line players. They are represented by major agencies – just check IMDBpro for yourself. They make six figure salaries for jobs such as this one, and wield a tremendous amount of on-set power. In no way was I talking about my colleague, Sarah Jones. In fact, having shot under similar circumstances, I promise you I would have had her back.

  4. Marc Casey says:

    To those who call you family. Family is love, kindness, safe, security, covering, protection, long suffering, tenderness….. When their is no other there is Family…. Family speaks to you when they see you. Family does not boast and brag to make themselves look good and put you down. Family would not put you in harms way. Family does not dishonor their own. Family teaches and covers and protects you.
    So now who do you call family……

    Marc Casey
    Vampire Daires B Camera 2nd AC
    Air Force Veteran
    Follower of Christ
    Father of three

  5. rigginggaffer says:

    Yes, The majority of the crew were Union (IATSE, DGA, ICG 600, Teamsters.
    It’s an Indep. Feature and I’m not sure if Prod. Co. Unclaimed Freight is a signatory or not. LA based 1st AD Hilary Schwartz (DGA), UPM/Prod. Jay Sedrish (DGA), Director Randall Miller (DGA), Location Mgr. Charley Baxter (Teamster) and Producer Nick Gant (Non Union)
    should all be questioned and Prod. should be held accountable as the Crew were just following orders.
    Here’s what We do know. According to the call sheet, they were shooting on the tracks of a train trestle (narrow bridge) with props and camera.
    1) There was no Medic on the call sheet
    2) There was no “Flagman” or any other rep. from the Train Co. on the call sheet or present during the shoot.
    3) Prod. was not in communication with CSX during the shoot.
    3) There were no local authorities (Police, Fire Dept. or local Gov’t Liaison) on the call sheet or on set beforehand.
    This is definitely a tragedy the could have been avoided with proper planning.
    There needs to be accountability for this person’s life. This is why We have Unions in the 1st place!!!

    • P.A. says:

      You can’t blame the DP. Or the Key Grip. The person responsible for the set is the 1st AD. He/She is the person who should’ve put the proper safety measures in place & said NO when the crew shouldn’t have been there.

    • Lee Russell says:

      Was the show’s listed DP on set for the shoot? If so, he’s the DP who’s shot several features for the Director, and he is presumably Local 600 working out of Los Angeles. He should have known better.

    • curious PA says:

      why not the key grip and DP too? aren’t they in a position to, and expected to, pipe up on behalf of the crew? and why were hair and makeup on the bridge when “no cast” were on set?

    • sandy says:

      Non-L.A. union locals need to train their members on safety rules so that a crew person can tell when movies are not following safety rules. I have worked on 40 union movies/tv shows, all L.A. based, and would have readily spotted #1, 2 and 3 above. Crew that has grown up in cities with a lot of non-union production doesn’t know what is required and/or normal. They aren’t challenging their producers or calling their union because they don’t recognize something is wrong. Another idea would be for union reps to visit any set that looks dangerous, and shut it down if safety measures are lacking. If the above “facts” are correct (and we must wait for an official investigation to know), it would have been apparent to an expert within two minutes of walking on the set.

  6. I’m sure all involved will rub their armpits with cash when the film opens.

    • Andy says:

      But if they never received permission and got a permit to be on the tracks (as CSX claims), that would have obviated the need for points 2,3, and 4, right? If they were stealing a shot (as this undoubtedly appears) those key folks you mention will hopefully never get work in our business again for this reprehensible action.

  7. “If another train comes” ?!?! That is just as unacceptable a possibility as a bed blocking one of 2 potential emergency exit paths from certain death… no PAs up the line with radios, no all clear, what else can we assume ? Those thoughts are speculation, but in almost all such incidents, bad communication and unclear delineation of responsibilities are suspect. First day of shooting is a big red flag as that often means crew who do not know each other and have not ironed out workflow and dynamic of the day. Ridiculous sloppiness or brazen working outside the permitted / noticed shot list is what it reads like. Time and investigation will tell. Perhaps some production personnel will be charged with negligent homicide. Unfortunately, there are a legion of sloppy newbs eagerly waiting to take their job on the next show.

  8. This is a terrible tragedy, and my thoughts and prayers go out to Sarah’s friends and family, and to the others who have been impacted by this horrible accident. I sincerely hope this didn’t happen because of any negligence on behalf of the production. As a location manager who has witnessed people almost getting killed on sets, and has had to race them to the hospital, etc., this story serves as a painful reminder of why “safety first” is always the best policy. When it comes to production, it’s so important to make sure all the “t’s” are crossed, and the “i’s” are dotted. I don’t understand if they didn’t have permission to be on the tracks, how/why they would have scheduled this on the first day of the shoot. I look forward to reading more updates on this story. Thank you for your coverage.

  9. MidwestBridgeBuilder says:

    I work in highway construction and used to coordinate construction work with railroads. Any time we were on railroad property we had to a) have a written permit, b) have a substantial liability insurance policy, c) have a safety training class with daily safety briefings and d) have a flagman (railroad employee paid for by us) onsite to coordinate the work and warn of any oncoming trains. These were requirements regardless of whether we had a crew of 40 people building a new bridge over the railroad or just 2 people walking around doing an annual bridge inspection.

    Freight trains do not run on any set schedule. They may have a normal start time out of the originating yard, but their times at any given location will vary from day to day. But trains are not “unexpected”. The railroad dispatchers job is to always know where every train is on their territory at any given time.

    Something went horribly wrong here with the coordination between the film production company and the railroad. Perhaps the fact that the adjacent property is apparently owned by a paper mill caused some confusion. Initial reporting seems to hint that perhaps the production company coordinated with the paper mill to be on their property, but not the railroad. Time will provide more details.

    If you are ever asked to work near live railroad tracks, look to see that there is a railroad flagman there. He or she usually will have some amount of reflective clothing, a railroad-issued hard hat (with the railroad’s logo) and a railroad-issued radio. Even then, always be aware of the situation around you.

    My condolences to the young woman’s family, friends and co-workers.

    • fairportfan says:

      According to an AP report that i saw on the August Chronicle site, posted late Friday evening, they did not, in fact, have permission to film on the tracks – only to film on Rayonier Mills property that the CSX line passed through.

      The deadly accident took place at a railroad trestle that crosses the Altamaha River in Wayne County. The tracks, owned by CSX Railroad, cross private land owned by forest-products company Rayonier, which has a nearby paper mill. Joe Gardner, the lead detective on the case, said the crew had Rayonier’s permission to film on its property next to the train tracks.

      CSX has told me they were aware they were out there, but they did not have permission to be on the train tracks,” Gardner said.

      Perhaps the production company thought that the permission from Rayonier was all they needed, but it appears that their location manager slipped up.

  10. anonymous says:

    blah blah blah……drop the union/non union thing right away. I’m a LA AD. I’ve worked huge union features(here,out of state, and out of the country) and low budget things too. I’ve seen the worst kind of negligence on both from all kinds of people-Stunt coordinators,camera guys,SPFX,locations,etc.The pressure that comes from above the line to “get the shot” is intense and often times people are backed in to a corner to do things that are inherently a bad idea. This is the most horrible scenario that ANY film crew member can envision and that is that. Until all the facts are in and all investigations are complete everyone should hold off on speculating and finger pointing. I love how the self appointed righteous blame makers are pinning production to the wall before the facts are in. As an AD I know safety is our main concern/responsibility and I take it very seriously, above the line pressure or not. So for the Georgia AD who keeps talking about what they would’ve done, shut it. You weren’t there, you don’t know what really happened and all your little ideas on what you would’ve done are nothing but chest thumping. Let the investigations happen, let the responsible party’s be held accountable afterwards and more than anything, mourn this poor woman’s death. No one should die on the job, film business or otherwise.

    • anonymous crew says:

      I agree that that an investigation needs be done and there is a certain amount of finger pointing going on in the comments but that is not what those comments are saying. Those comments are saying “that could have easily been me.” It hits close to home. My thoughts go out to Sarah Jones family and fiends.

  11. M33 says:

    This explains a lot http://variety.com/2014/film/news/investigator-midnight-rider-crew-wasnt-supposed-to-be-on-tracks-1201115835/ They didn’t have permission to be on the track! If that shot was in the script, the shot list and production notes, Meddin Studios deliberately broke the law!

    • aj says:

      If in fact, the crew did not have permission to be on the tracks then why were they even told about the two trains at all? The article states the third train was unexpected. Unexpected by the crew, or unexpected by the railroad company?

      • this gardener detective guy is contradicting himself about csx giving permission to the crew. in the beginning of the article he says they had it and csx was aware. at the end of the article he says that csx knew they were there but didnt give them the permission. thats a major contradiction by the head detective. it looks like the police are covering up for csx’s mistakes. im not sure but i believe railroads are considered ferderal jurisdictions. how could they not know exactly where the train was at all times when they use sensors on the tracks to trace its location like clockwork? csx screwed up in my opinion and it looks as if the cops are covering up for them. csx knew they were there but didnt give them permission? totally a cop out. they couldnt send a word up the tracks to help them out to avoid a problem? come on. gardener says they had permission and then says they didnt. lame. the truth is already out there. those federal railroad guys apparently dont like rock and roll enough to give a hoot.

      • fairportfan says:

        Presumably, they were warned about trains so they would be careful while they were shooting next to the railroad, as the railroad apparently assumed they would be, having not given permission for them to be ON the tracks.

  12. aj says:

    I am always surprised at the amount of comments based on assumptions in most situations. Were any of you there? Would you not think that everyone involved is devastated by this tragic accident? The authorities will investigate and determine the events that took place regardless of what anyone’s opinion is. As for this being a non union film, do any of you know that for sure? My prayers for the victim of this accident, her family and those injured as well as the entire crew.

  13. M33 says:

    I’m not blaming the crew, I’m blaming Meddin Studios for gross negligence! They are the local production company, the 1st AD, UPM and Director secondarily, but the studio could have said NO to this dangerous stunt or they could have prepared for it properly like a real professional production company should have done. This has nothing to do with right to work, this has to do with responsibility. Any adult with any common sense should know not to enclose themselves on a live track without having proper safety measures in place. Meddin Studios should be held responsible!

    • sandy says:

      Unclaimed Freight Production (Pasadena, CA) is the production company producing this movie, not Meddin Studio. “Variety,” please get the facts right. Nick Gant is listed as an Executive Producer on imdb.com. The PRODUCERS are Randall Miller (who is also the director) and Jody Savin.

    • fairportfan says:

      Personally, i can’t imagine what it being or not being a union production could have to do with anything – but, given that this shoot is in Georgia, and the company is apparently based here, i’d say there’s a pretty good chance it’s non-union.

      Not that it matters.

      • tina says:

        I did read Greg was a executive producer too is that true? and will he be involved anyone know?

      • rigginggaffer says:

        Yes, I agree. LA based 1st AD Hilary Schwartz (DGA), UPM/Prod. Jay Sedrish (DGA), Director Randall Miller (DGA), Location Mgr. Charley Baxter (Teamster) and Producer Nick Gant (Non Union)
        should all be questioned and held accountable as the Crew were just following orders.
        Here’s what We do know.
        1) There was no Medic on the call sheet
        2) There was no “Flagman” or any other rep. from the Train Co. present
        3) There were no local authorities (Police, Fire Dept. or local Gov’t Liason) present beforehand hence the three 911 calls that were fielded.

      • dlerchlv426 says:

        It was a union show. Sag, dga, teamsters, 600, and 491. Sarah was a ray of sunshine on set even on the raniest nastiest days. She was young but had been 600 at least since 2009. She like many others moved from another state to Atlanta for work. I moved from VA from 487 to 479 for work. I know people from NY, LA, NM, and NOLA who work in Atlanta. Many people in 479 aren’t even from here. We came from all over when the incentives hit. Saying this would never happen in LA is silly because the Director, AD, and production was from LA. The crew just does what production says. Its the ADs, Locations, and Productions job to facilitate a safe working environment for us to work in. So please guys, quit with the union and non union chatter. Every movie I’ve ever worked on in GA was a union gig with a LA above the line on board. We all work on big shows like fast 7, hunger games, and the like. We also have pinewood studios and others building here. So whether you like it or not, Atlanta has a huge experienced production commu city with people from all over the world working here.

  14. Georgia AD says:

    This was a union show. A DGA show. A SAG show. Stop blaming right to work, stop blaming the crew. Blame the 1st AD and UPM and Director. This wasn’t a show full of newbies. This was a show run by people who have been in their fields for a very long time. Heads should roll and charges should be filed.

    • P.A. says:

      Thank you. The 1st and the UPM should’ve known better. Period.

    • Mell says:

      “run by people who have been in their fields for a very long time”

      And what that means? I’ve been working in the business for over 25 years and everyday I work with folks that have been doing it longer than me sometimes and are terrible professionals!!!
      It’s the biz of “who you know and not how good you are”.

      And No Unions or Independents (union/no union) Productions can become a nightmare (who knows, they never tell you all the details when you get the job)!!!

      And how many times I worked with folks from Georgia/Louisiana complaining of their salaries/right to work. I done all Union/No Union/Independent/Big Studio. I will take the Union or Big Studios ones if I can, thank you very much.

  15. M33 says:

    I think this was a “shoot day” listed as their first day of principal photography. You’re right! If they had a proper, experienced union crew this might have been avoided. I think the studio in Savannah should be held accountable for allowing this circus to happen. Their crew was likely inexperienced and only following direction. People should have been posted 10-15 minutes out in all directions and on each track to radio in any train activity. A properly planned shoot would have had formal permission to shut down the tracks and at the very least, communication with the train traffic controllers and operators.

  16. Rose says:

    Ur right so sad heart goes out to her family this shouldn’t happen! Usually u hear stunt work from cars or high building but this was a careless waste of LIFE!

  17. lmp says:

    It sure sounds like one of those “it’s only a camera test day but since we have the gear let’s go out and steal a few shots.” Usually the company won’t list this as a shooting day on the production report and will try and get away with minimal crew. I feel so bad for this poor woman who was clearly only doing what she was asked to do. There are laws and rules in place in production centers like NYC and Los Angeles which would make it difficult to get away with what these folks were doing. Ironically these rules are sometimes characterized by irresponsible and/or inexperienced production companies as “expensive and unnecessary.” The UPM, Location Manager and ultimately the First Assistant Director are responsible for insuring safety on the set. You have to be willing to lose your job in defense of safety. I can’t imagine the levels of remorse being felt by those responsible at the moment. This kind of accident is almost always a case of inexperienced people underestimating the consequences of their actions (or inactions).

    • Joe Producer says:

      I totally agree with you. However, consider this: every Union crew must choose a shop steward who, in the case, would be the one to refuse to compromise the crew’s safety under any circumstances – especially a scenario such as this one. Having shot in these kinds of situations, I can tell you that:
      (1) No train company would allow placing a bed & mattress on a live track, and then tell the filmmakers, “Oh, and by the way, unexpected trains zoom by, and will only give you a 60 second warning.” (2) If there was any possibility of the Producers being honest and upfront with the train company, at very least, the train company would have insisted on having their own team on the ground, chaperoning the filmmakers. Because this was a skeletal crew of 20, the Director of Photography, as the highest ranking Union crew member, should have simply refused to do the shot. Does anybody know whether he was present? Or did Production have a bogus “B” team on hand to steal this shot. If the Union DP was there, perhaps he should be held accountable as well.

      • Adaminky says:

        As a location manager myself, I totally 2nd what Joe says. There is NO situation I can fathom where a train company would have let this go down as reported. Perhaps production was given the ok to be near the tracks, but more than likely they were stealing the shot, as I can’t understand why no train rep was there if they were even going to be inside of the tracks easement zone. Train companies don’t play around when it comes to people on their tracks, let alone putting a bed on a working bridge! I hope the location manager at least protested/threatened to walk etc, although even if they did, its not impossible that he was ignored, I’ve seen it happen.

      • SoCalGuy says:

        I don’t think we know that this was a union shoot, do we?

  18. M33 says:

    There is no way the production company had permission to film on a bridge of an active track. These guys are amateurs and reckless and of course a non-union production. They endangered the lives of their crew and I’m sure someone will be held responsible for this terrible tragedy. That poor girl is the victim of negligence by the studio in Savannah.

    • Mell says:

      I tell you no Union Productions can kill you. Think twice before taking such no Union calls people.

      • DM says:

        Wowza! Your quote: “I tell you no Union Productions can kill you.”????? Wow, really — what sand has your head been buried in?????? Accidents happen plain and simple – that’s why they’re accidents – we all operate as humans not robots regardless of union or non union. GEEZ!

        With that said the is an ENORMOUS difference between an accident (that can kill) and massive gross negligence (that can kill). Which seems to be an appropriate description for what transpired on Thursday.

        It isn’t something that’s rooted in Union/Non-Union, it’s rooted in the so-called “Adults” we generally jovially refer to as. The “Adults” on this show exhibited a massive lack of intelligence and failed on their responsibilities.

        There is an all too common lack of ability or willingness to say “no” for all parties. It sends the: “give them an inch and they take a mile” mentality, the bar keeps getting pushed because until the bar doesn’t move the line in the sand isn’t drawn…. the “Adults” that were to have ensured safety failed their crew, terribly. Negligently.

      • fairportfan says:

        Well, okay. But apparently this was a union shoot, based on other comments.

  19. Mell says:

    Was this an Union production?

    Not sure if another train coming and one minute to get out of way!!!

    Sounds very unprofessional.

    • Tom Moore says:

      By the way, the young woman who was killed happened to be a roommate of my niece in Atlanta, GA. Sometimes she also would be on the sets, she is a makeup artist. For only given a one minute warning to get out of harms way and no place to secure themselves, someone overlooked this situation. The crew knew that a 3rd train may come thru and a whistle blown one minute before approaching the bridge, what a mistake, causing a death and , not near enough time to get in a safe place…. My prayers and thoughts are going out to all the hurting people…..Please accept Gods Love….Tom Moore

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