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‘Midnight Rider’ Death: Sarah Jones Becomes a Symbol as Bizzers’ Emotions Surge

"We are all Sarah Jones," declares global below-the-line community

As the organizers of Sunday’s Oscars telecast continued to withhold word on whether they would include Sarah Jones, the camera assistant who was killed by a train on Feb. 20 during shooting of the Gregg Allman biopic “Midnight Rider,” in the show’s “In Memoriam” reel, the worldwide outpouring of grief and anger over her death continues to build.

Jones has become a symbol, and there is growing sentiment within the industry that her death and the larger issue of safety will remain hot topics for a long time to come.

Industry insiders expressed doubt that Jones would be included. The Academy is sticking with its policy of not commenting on who will or won’t be included on the televised “In Memoriam” segment. She will almost certainly be included in the more extensive list of deaths that runs on Oscars.com, but that is unlikely to mollify the nearly 57,000 people who have signed the online petition to have Jones included in the television segment.

One common sentiment among the below-the-line community, repeated on the  “Slates for Sarah” Facebook page, on a Twitter hashtag and by below-the-line crew who were shocked by the accident, is “We are all Sarah Jones.”  That reflects a general feeling that while stuntmen and special effects pros do dangerous work and are trained for the risks they face, camera assistants, production sound mixers and hair stylists rely on the first assistant director, key grip and others to keep them safe — and that some directors and producers have become cavalier about such safety.

Expressions of grief and solidarity have poured in from film sets and filmmaking professionals around the world, as planning accelerated for more memorials and tributes.

On social media, a push has been launched for stars attending the Oscars on Sunday to wear a small black ribbon. “We ask that the celebrities that we all work so tirelessly to make look great be our voice this Sunday,” says the “Wear a Ribbon to the Oscars for Sarah” Facebook page. “Wear a ribbon, and when you are asked why, tell them about Sarah.” The hashtag on Twitter for the push is #ribbonforsarah.

A moment of silence was held for Jones at the Intl. Cinematographers Guild publicists lunch (Publicists are repped by the the ICG) at the Beverly Wilshire hotel Friday. Jones was a member of the ICG. The ICG is helping to organize a memorial gathering in Atlanta for Jones, scheduled for Sunday, and will hold a candlelight vigil for her on Wed., March 5, in Los Angeles, probably from 7:30 p.m. to 10:00 p.m. The route of the march has not yet been finalized.

The “Slates for Sarah” Facebook page continues to accrue photos from sets all over the world. Photos of slates bearing messages of love and “RIP” or “Never forget” notes have come from sets in Israel, London, Vancouver and other global locations. The cast from “The Vampire Diaries,” where Jones had once worked, and from “True Blood,” posed with the slates from from their sets and posted the photos to Twitter. Individuals and companies from around the industry are also weighing in with their own photos and messages on the Facebook page.

The ICG’s Facebook page has a photo of Jones’s family holding her own personal slate, which was with her in the moments leading up to her fatal accident. The family’s message reads in part: “Our thanks go out not only to the Slates for Sarah community, but also to every hard worker that ever contributed to the industry. She considered you family.”

That affection seems to be reciprocated in Georgia, where Jones was well-known and well-liked among local pros. Emotions there are running high. Local crew people in Atlanta are frustrated and angry, feeling that the accident was preventable.

Those with experience shooting around railroads seem unanimous in their dismay at the sequence of events that has emerged since the accident and reports that the railroad, CSX, told investigators it denied permission for the shoot to be on its tracks or bridge. Sheriff’s detectives in Wayne County, Georgia, are focusing on who put the crew on the bridge, and how they got access to the property.

Nilo Otero, a first assistant director who has worked on shoots around trains, said he wouldn’t shoot on active tracks without a railroad company rep, and would put spotters three to five miles away “to look for acts of God.”

“Trains has its own set of rules,” he said. “They have to deal with scale and inertia that are outside of most people’s experience. Trains are not cars. They don’t stop, they don’t back up real easy.

“Any time I (work with trains) I have ‘Train Guy’ standing by me. If Train Guy has to go to the bathroom, we don’t do anything. Anything we have to do goes through Train Guy. If we have to change for some reason, we wait until he makes his calls and we see what’s viable. This isn’t a run-and-gun situation. You don’t try to sneak anything.”

Otero said the apparent lack of a railroad company representative on site may indicate that those running the shoot that day knew they didn’t have permission to shoot —  or to put a hospital bed on the railroad tracks, as the shot required.

Federal laws and regulations are stringent and specific on the subject, and putting an obstruction on active railroad tracks can be a violation of federal law. The line where the accident took place is considered a main line with nine to 14 trains on a typical day.

“If you can’t get permission for it, then you don’t have the guy whose job it is to refuse permission around,” said Otero. “The nature of what they were trying to do may have been something that couldn’t have been done officially.”

The crew was told that if they heard a whistle, they’d have a minute to clear the tracks, but in fact had much less, perhaps as little as 15 seconds, according to crew members who were present on the bridge that day. Otero said, “Even if you’re getting down and dirty with this, you still use your brain. You can’t say ‘We’ll hear a whistle and we’ll get out of the way.’ Especially if you’re going to put something on the track.”

(Tim Gray contributed to this report.)

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