‘Midnight Rider,’ Two Years Later: Sarah Jones’ Family Launches Safety Campaign

Sarah Jones
Safety for Sarah

Production sets will observe a moment of silence this week to commemorate the second anniversary of the death of Sarah Jones, the camera assistant who was killed in the Feb. 20, 2014, train accident on the location of “Midnight Rider.”

The Sarah Jones Film Foundation, set up by Jones’ family, is calling for the moment of silence as part of its Safety for Sarah campaign, one of a series of initiatives to boost on-set safety.

“One of the phrases we try to remember is ‘never forget, never again,'” said Richard Jones, her father. “Never forget what happened to Sarah Jones when safety is shoved aside. And let’s do what we can to never let it happen again.”

Jones’ parents, who live in South Carolina, have become advocates for safety on film sets, and have been in Los Angeles this month to raise awareness for the foundation’s campaign. Her mother, Elizabeth Jones, said that “the very first phrase that took place is ‘Don’t let our daughter’s death be in vain.’ ”

The production failed to obtain permission from CSX Transportation, the owner of the railroad tracks on the set, but shot on a trestle anyway. When a train came, the production team was forced to flee with less than a minute to get off the railroad bridge.

The director of “Midnight Rider,” Randall Miller, is currently serving a two-year sentence in Wayne County Jail in Jesup, Ga., after pleading guilty last year to charges of involuntary manslaughter and criminal trespass.

Richard Jones said that the moment of silence also will be in recognition of the eight injured on the set that day. The accident triggered an outcry about on-set safety, with crew members wearing buttons that said “We Are Sarah Jones.” The concerns have been less about a need for new regulations and guidelines, and more about existing standards not being followed.

“We understand that even when a story is a little bit bigger, it is going to fade away,” Jones said. “To maintain that awareness of the need for safety is really what it comes down to. It is not really about Sarah, because she is gone. There is nothing we can do for her. It is about the living. How can we in five years keep safety in the minds of people, and the horrible, horrible kinds of things that can happen in just ignoring people’s health and safety.”

The foundation has started a program in which productions display the “Safety for Sarah” logo in end credits after signing an agreement to observe safety guidelines, conduct daily safety meetings and acknowledge the first shot of the day as the “Jonsey,” to remember what happened to Sarah Jones when proper safety procedures were not taken.

The agreement also allows for “anyone, at anytime, to call a ‘Sarah Timeout’ without concern for their job or reputation, should they not feel safe or need further clarification regarding a safety issue. A ‘Sarah Timeout’ will allow for a one-minute on-set pause. Should it be justified, this brief timeout may be extended until the issue is clarified or resolved.” The timeout is intended to address concerns that crew members would be too reluctant to raise for fear of being viewed as a troublemaker.

“We are wanting to empower anyone on a set who feels they may be in danger to at least speak out,” Jones said. “In the case of ‘Midnight Rider,’ in talking to various people there, we don’t know, but we feel that if they had the ability just to take a breath, that they might have realized the madness of what they were doing that day. The madness just doesn’t make sense.”

The foundation also is endorsing a feature documentary, “We Are Sarah Jones,” directed by Eric S. Smith, which will examine not just the tragedy and Jones’ life but the safety campaign that has been launched in the wake of the accident.

The foundation also is inviting productions to post photos of the moment of silence on the Safety for Sarah Facebook page, the @SlatesforSarah Twitter feed and Instagram with #SafetyforSarah. They also are working with film schools to incorporate Sarah Jones’ story into safety instruction.

Meanwhile, others injured still have litigation pending against the filmmakers, and the Jones family has a pending claim against CSX. They reached a settlement with the production in November, 2014.

Film Allman, the production company set up by Miller and his wife, producer Jody Savin, is challenging almost $75,000 in safety fines in an appellate court, and also has litigation pending against the production insurer.

Last month, the judge in the “Midnight Rider” case, Anthony Harrison, rejected Miller’s effort to modify his sentence and gain release. The director’s legal team cited Miller’s poor health and good behavior.

The issue could arise again. Miller’s attorney, Ed Garland, said in a recent court filing that “a special condition” of his probation was that he serve two years in Wayne County Jail “with time to be computed by the Sheriff who committed to a two-for-one computation of service.” That credit for good behavior would mean that Miller is eligible for release next month. But Richard Jones said that they were not aware of such a one-year deal, and that the the sheriff of Wayne County, John Carter, also was not aware of it. Although the sheriff has the discretion to determine such a release, Jones said that Carter told him that he “had not had a felony case he had used this power with” and would have to seek legal counsel.

Meanwhile, Jones said that they have seen an impact that the case has had on set safety — with the challenge now being that it is not forgotten.

“We have had any number of people approach us and say that in certain situations, there was something [amiss] and somebody might even say, ‘Remember Sarah Jones,’ and invoke her name.”