‘Midnight Rider’ Fatal Train Accident Triggers Push to Improve On-Set Safety

Shoot may have violated Federal laws as well as Industry safety guidelines

"Midnight Rider" fatal train accident triggers

The accident on the set of “Midnight Rider” last week that killed 27-year-old camera assistant Sarah Jones has triggered calls for the industry to establish new guidelines for on-set safety.

Even as the investigations into the cause of the accident continue, crew members in Atlanta, Savannah and Los Angeles are launching new campaigns to improve safety procedures.

“I am still not 100% on that facts that have unfolded, but I can tell you this: Nobody should have been on those tracks,” Chris “CC” Clark told a gathering of members of IATSE Local 479 in Atlanta on Monday, in a speech that was posted on YouTube. “The hectic ‘hurry up and go’ on a film set is a hazardous way of thinking. We are not doctors saving lives. I understand we have a job to do, and we all want to secure the next job. But when safety is thrown out the window, accidents will happen in our line of work.”

Midnight Rider,” a biopic of rocker Gregg Allman that was to star William Hurt, Tyson Ritter and Wyatt Russell, had placed a hospital bed on a railroad trestle in Georgia to shoot a dream sequence on the afternoon of Feb. 20 when a train came through unexpectedly. The crew was unable to clear the bed from the tracks within the few seconds before the train arrived and the train was unable to stop before reaching the bridge. The train struck the bed, turning much of the frame into shrapnel.

Flying debris hit Jones and knocked her into the path of the oncoming train, which struck her and killed her. Other crew members were injured by flying debris, or by the train itself.

The production was in its first day of shooting. The call sheet for the day lists it as a “pre-shoot” day, but the schedule involved principal actors Hurt and Russell. Hurt was on the tracks when the approaching train blew its whistle. Russell was not on the tracks at the time.

Production on “Midnight Rider” has been suspended with no restart date set.

Clark, a friend of Jones’, said in an interview Wednesday that he has launched a campaign called Be Safe and Be Heard: The Sarah Jones Safety Initiative. One of the points he made in his speech is that the responsibility for monitoring on-set safety shouldn’t fall to the key grip and first assistant director.

“These men and women are already overburdened, and then to ask to look after an entire crew that is going in 50 directions at once…to expect these individuals to be additionally responsible for crew safety, is preposterous,” he said. He called it a “hazardous way of operating.”

One of Clark’s concerns is that crew members don’t speak up about safety concerns out of fear of losing their jobs. “The crew needs to know that if they are operating under any kind of suspicion of unsafe conditions, that they can speak up,” he said.

A goal of the Slates for Sarah campaign also is to raise awareness of safety concerns. The campaign, in which crew members are posting photos of film slates with “RIP Sarah” or other messages in her honor, is also calling for a watchdog on film sets to monitor safety procedures.

Steven Poster, president of Jones’s union, the Int’l Cinematographers Guild (IATSE Local 600), said he hopes this incident sparks an ongoing industry conversation about safety.

“(If) we can keep this in the forefront of the news and social media, and keep her name out there, if this starts furthering the dialogue about the nature of our industry, then I think we’ve accomplished something,” said Poster. “I don’t think you can ever mitigate the sadness and the loss of this young woman, but I hope we can keep the conversation going.”

Poster planned to attend Wednesday’s funeral for Jones in Columbia, S.C.. The Cinematographers’ Guild is helping to organize a memorial for Jones Sunday in Atlanta, which is also being promoted on the Slates for Sarah Facebook page. Poster said he also expects the guild to organize a candlelight vigil for Jones in Los Angeles, probably next week so as not to conflict with the Oscars.

IATSE President Matthew Loeb issued a statement on the accident, saying that their “condolences go out to the crew and their families affected by this tragedy. The IATSE has representatives on site monitoring the situation. We are assisting with the ongoing investigations by law enforcement agencies and, most importantly, will continue to advocate for our members.” 

Meanwhile key questions about the accident itself remain unanswered. One question is whether the entertainment industry’s own safety guidelines were followed. According to the Labor-Management Safety Committee bulletin on railroad safety, revised in April of 2013 (and provided to Variety by the Cinematographers’ Guild), production has to be in conjunctions with a railroad representative.

The guidelines say that no objects should be placed on the rails, but if it is required of the production, “specific permission must be obtained from the designated railroad representative and additional safety precautions may be required.”

The guidelines also say : “DO NOT RELY ON OTHERS TO WARN YOU (emphasis in original) of approaching locomotives, rail cars or other equipment. Even if personnel have been assigned to provide warning, stay alert. You may not hear or see the warning.”

The crew for “Midnight Rider” was relying on trains’ whistles to warn them and had been told by someone — it has not yet been revealed who — to expect about a minute to clear the tracks once they heard a train whistle. When the fatal train approached, though, they had less than a minute’s warning, perhaps as little as 15 seconds.

Among the major unanswered questions surrounding the accident is whether CSX, the railroad operating the train that killed Jones, had given any permission for the crew to be on or near the tracks and whether the railroad had a representative on site for the shoot.

Arthur J. Miller, an employee of Iowa Pacific Holdings who is also a railroad consultant for film shoots that involve railroads, told Variety he could envision no scenario where that would happen if the railroad had given consent for the shoot. “It would be inconceivable that even the smallest railroad would allow a production company to work on their property without a representative present.”

Miller, whose credits include the railroad action pic “Unstoppable,” added regarding the hospital bed on the tracks: “Without proper roadway worker protection procedures in place, it would be illegal to place an obstruction on any active railroad line.”

“It’s a very delicate dance that must be arranged when you’re shooting on an active main line,” said Miller, saying that in such a case, the railroad will typically need to send some trains through without delay, so the crew’s meal breaks are scheduled during those interruptions.

The line on which the accident occurred, northeast of Jesup, Georgia, is considered a main line and carries nine to 14 trains a day.

The National Transportation Safety Board, Occupational Health and Safety Adminstration (OSHA) and Federal Railroad Administration are investigating the incident.

Veteran location scout Lori Balton, who is now working in Georgia, told Variety this accident would make it more difficult for future productions that hope to shoot on or near rail lines. “Sadly, it reinforces the railroads’ overriding policy to keep film crews away from the tracks because we are sometimes not very good at following rules — simply because some idiot wants to override safety concerns to ‘get the shot.'”