‘Midnight Rider’ Accident Still Resonates One Year Later

Sarah Jones Accident
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Family and friends of Sarah Jones are calling for a moment of silence on Feb. 20, on movie sets, work locations and elsewhere in the industry. That is the date, one year ago, when Jones was killed, and eight others injured, as the crew of “Midnight Rider” scrambled to get out of the way of a train speeding through their shooting location near Jesup, Ga. While there have been dozens of serious accidents on film sets over the past 20 years, often with calls for safety fading over ensuing months, Jones’ death triggered a massive outpouring of anger, frustration and protest — raising an awareness of on-set safety that has endured.

Nevertheless, it remains to be seen whether the tragedy will lead to structural changes related to who has authority concerning safety issues on the set. The problem with “Midnight Rider” was not that there weren’t industry guidelines for shooting on railroad tracks; it was that, according to federal workplace investigators, those guidelines weren’t followed. Federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration investigators bluntly concluded in their accident report that the filmmakers were “stealing the shot.”

“The director can control who is hired to work a film,” wrote OSHA investigators in their report, citing the production company for “willful violations.” “If an employee cannot deliver what the director wants, the director may not hire that person again in the future, and the word would get out that you are not a person who can deliver what the movie calls for,” the report stated.

Some organizers of a PSA campaign for on-set safety, unveiled at the Sundance Film Festival last month by Jones’ parents, Richard and Elizabeth, would like to see the industry appoint an on-set safety officer — someone who could sound the alarm about potential hazards. Although the assumption has long been that the first assistant director is tasked with on-set safety, those responsibilities are not explicitly spelled out in the Directors Guild’s basic agreement.

Awareness of safety is definitely changing, says Chris “CC” Clark, an Atlanta lighting technician who was a friend of Jones, and has been among the organizers of safety campaigns. He cited such improvements as a pair of new safety apps, as well as more sets incorporating safety guidelines on call sheets. On many sets, the first shot of the day is now called “the Jones-ey,” her nickname, keeping the issue of safety in the minds of the crew. The Jones family, below, along with industry guilds, are calling for the moment of silent just before that first shot.

The accident “is one of those things that should be causing hairs to stand up on the necks of production people,” says Chris Palmer, an entertainment risk consultant based in Georgia, a member of the industry safety committee from 1994 to 2003. That committee was formed to come up with new industry standards in the wake of the 1983 helicopter accident on the set of  “The Twilight Zone,” which killed star Vic Morrow and two child actors.

That the “Midnight Rider” case became a criminal matter, while other accidents were not, may be why calls for safety have persisted. Director Randall Miller, producer Jody Savin, executive producer Jay Sedrish and first assistant director Hillary Schwartz each face charges of criminal trespass and involuntary manslaughter, with a trial scheduled to begin in Jesup on March 9. They have plead not guilty, and the filmmakers are challenging the OSHA citations.

“This was an isolated incident that is not reflective of the safe work history” of the filmmakers, attorneys for Miller and Savin said in appealing the citations, arguing that they “took reasonable steps to ensure the safety of all crew present.”

Mary Vogel, executive director of the National Council for Occupational Safety and Health, says that a problem is that the level of fines allowed under the OSHA Act are so low that for many companies, “it is the cost of doing business.”

“That is why the prosecution is so important,” she said. “For some companies, that is what it takes to be deterred, to do the right thing.”

Update: The Directors Guild of America issued a statement tied to the fuirst anniversary.

“Safety is of paramount importance to the Guild and its members. In the year since the tragic accident on the set of ‘Midnight Rider,’ the dialogue within the entertainment community about being vigilant on set and speaking up if something seems unsafe has certainly increased, and organizations including the DGA have reiterated the availability of 24/7 safety hotlines to report concerns. However, there is still much work to be done by the employers, with the participation of the guilds and unions, to strengthen, broaden, and clarify the applicability of safety guidelines across the industry – whether studio film or independent production, whether made in California or not – so that everybody who steps onto a set knows that they are operating under the same high standards of how to ensure on-set safety no matter where they work.”