The National Transportation Safety Board has concluded that the probable cause of the Feb. 20, 2014, train accident on the set of “Midnight Rider” was that the production didn’t have permission to shoot on the CSX trestle over the Altamaha River near Jesup, Ga.
On Tuesday, the NTSB said that the “probable cause of the accident was the film crew’s unauthorized entry onto the CSX Transportation right-of-way at the Altamaha River bridge with personnel and equipment, despite CSX Transportation’s repeated denial of permission to access the railroad property. Contributing to the accident was the adjacent property owner’s actions to facilitate the film crew’s access to the right-of-way and bridge.”
Twenty-seven-year-old camera assistant Sarah Jones was killed and eight others were injured in the accident.
Although the results of the investigation are in line with those of local authorities and federal workplace safety officials, the NTSB report did include greater detail on what led the filmmakers to shoot on the tracks despite being denied permission.
Their report says location manager Charley Baxter, tasked with obtaining permission to shoot at the location, received an email from CSX on the morning of Feb. 20 in which the railroad said it would “not be able to support your request.” According to the NTSB, Baxter forwarded the email to film staff, and informed the producer, the director, the writer and the first assistant director of the denial to shoot on the railroad property.
According to the NTSB, Baxter said, “The director insisted that filming would proceed despite CSX’s denial of permission. As a result, the location manager refused to participate in the film shoot; although he could not prohibit the film crew from working.”
Baxter was to be a key prosecution witness had the involuntary manslaughter case against director Randall Miller, producer Jody Savin, executive producer Jay Sedrish and first assistant director Hillary Schwartz gone to trial. Instead, Miller reached a plea deal in which he was sentenced on March 9 to two years in jail and eight years of probation, while charges against his wife, Savin, were dismissed, Sedrish also reached a plea agreement and was sentenced to 10 years’ probation, as was Schwartz.
The NTSB report says that on Feb. 20, it was Schwartz who told the film crew that two trains would pass and the filming could begin. That is a key piece of information as to what led the crew to believe that shooting on the tracks and trestle would be safe. But according to the NTSB, Schwartz got that information from an assistant to the location manager, but that the “original source of this information is not known.”
The NTSB also puts some blame on Rayonier Paper Products Co., which owns the land surrounding the tracks, as it granted permission by the crew to shoot on their land and their employees even escorted them “through their property to the railroad right of way.”
In a statement released last week, Miller, serving time in Wayne County Jail in Jesup, said that he takes responsibility for the accident.
“The location manager, the production designer, the unit production manager, the cinematographer, assistant director and others all made mistakes that led to this, but I have taken responsibility because I could have asked more questions and I was the one in charge,” he said.
The NTSB is recommending to industry guilds that they work together to emphasize that railroads are private property requiring the railroad’s authorization to enter, and that “if authorization is given, everyone on scene must follow the railroad’s safety procedures to reduce hazards.”
“The film crew leadership had enough awareness about railroads to ask for CSX’s permission to film,” the NTSB said. “In NTSB interviews, some of the film crew leadership stated they thought others were handling the permission to be on CSX property; while others believed it was safe to film. This assumption was reckless, and it endangered the entire film crew.”
The NTSB report is here.