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‘The Walking Dead’ Stuntman’s Death Raises Questions About Set Safety

A decade ago, John Bernecker was living in New Orleans when he met a stunt coordinator named Phil O’Dell. Then in his early 20s, Bernecker had been practicing “street gymnastics” with a friend. O’Dell invited him to train on a practice facility he had built at his home, set on a few acres outside Covington, La.

“He had scaffolding and mats and a jerk line,” says Austin Church, who practiced stunts with Bernecker. “We had a pretty good-size airbag. We were able to do a 50-foot drop into that airbag.”

Bernecker was a natural, Church says. “He reminded me of a big cat,” he says. “He had incredible situational awareness with his body.”

But in a tragic accident last week, Bernecker died after a fall on the set of “The Walking Dead” in Senoia, Ga. His friends and colleagues are at a loss to explain how it could have happened.

According to a sheriff’s report, he fell from just 22 feet — a relatively easy stunt for someone of his experience. At 33, he had worked on many major Hollywood productions, including the “Hunger Games” films, “Logan” and “Black Panther.”

“Twenty-two feet was nothing for him,” Church says. “He’s done a lot higher than that.”

Marly Gallardo for Variety

The federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration is investigating Bernecker’s death. According to the Coweta County Sheriff’s Office, Bernecker was supposed to perform a fall from a balcony onto a pad made of 22-inch boxes and port-a-pit pads. As he fell, he failed to get adequate separation from the balcony and tried to abort the fall by grabbing onto the railing. He spun backward and fell to the concrete below, landing on his head and neck. He missed the pad by inches.

“It breaks my heart,” says Bob Fisher, a 23-year veteran stuntman who has worked on many Georgia-based shows, including “The Walking Dead.” “We all want to know what happened, and we want to know why.”

The film community in Georgia is also searching for explanations. This is the second fatality on a set in the state in the last three years. In 2014, camera assistant Sarah Jones was struck by a train during the shooting of the independent film “Midnight Rider.”

That case led to the prosecution of director Randall Miller, who served a year in jail for manslaughter. Jones’ family also filed suit, and on July 17 a jury awarded it $11.2 million in damages.

The case also brought a widespread cultural shift, say industry veterans, forcing productions to refocus on safety and avoid unnecessary risks.

“Ever since the Sarah Jones incident, movie sets, especially in Georgia, have been ultra-safe,” says Thomas Roberts, who was a set medic on “Midnight Rider.” “It’s made a 180-degree turn from just doing very silly, unsafe stuff to being very safe.”

Bernecker’s death marks another high-profile tragedy, and it could renew concerns about safety on set. Roberts worries that the incident will “give us a bad rap, which we really shouldn’t have.”

The sheriff’s report questioned Bernecker’s experience. Before the fall, he reportedly told an actor that he was nervous and had never done a fall from that high up. But friends and colleagues say he had to have been joking. Stunt performers often tease actors that way to cut the tension, and Bernecker had done many such falls before.

“John Bernecker was a talented stuntman,” Fisher says. “He was ridiculously talented. … He’s one of those guys that everybody got along with. He was fun to be around. He never struck me as a kind of guy that would have rushed into something.”

“It’s impossible for somebody to die if everything was done correctly.In this day and age, there should not be any accidents.”
Kim Kahana, stunt school operator

Such accidents are extremely rare. In the last five years, the “Midnight Rider” death was the only other fatality in the Georgia film industry, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Nationwide, there were 13 fatalities on film and TV sets from 2011 through 2015, according to BLS data.

Federal data on injuries were not readily available. An L.A. Times database of on-set injuries, compiled in 2015, listed only one incident in Georgia — the “Midnight Rider” case — for the years 1990-2014.

However, there was a serious accident on the Georgia set of “The Walking Dead” in 2013. In that case, 20-year-old actor Zane Orr was run over by a military vehicle, fracturing his pelvis.

Fisher says “The Walking Dead” was always professionally run.

“These people know what they’re doing,” he says, adding that there is no similarity to “Midnight Rider.” “You cannot compare the two. You are comparing an apple and a basketball. … I have never once felt that myself or anybody I worked around was in jeopardy on that show.”

But several stunt trainers raised concerns about the placement and size of the padding.

“It’s ridiculous.  … From 22 feet there’s no reason to miss,” says veteran stuntman Joe Witherell. “It doesn’t sound like they made [the pad] big enough. If he missed it from 22 feet, it must have been pretty small.”

Kim Kahana, who runs a stunt school in Florida, was similarly baffled. “It’s impossible for somebody to die if everything was done correctly,” he says. “In this day and age, there should not be any accidents.”

AMC, Gale Anne Hurd’s Valhalla Entertainment production company and SAG-AFTRA all declined to comment for this story.

Chris Palmer, an entertainment industry risk management consultant, also focused on the pads. Additionally, he noted that it took seven minutes for the first ambulance to arrive and a full 30 minutes before a helicopter landed to take Bernecker to the hospital in Atlanta. The SAG-AFTRA master agreement includes a provision requiring that ambulances be on hand for hazardous stunts. Palmer concedes an ambulance may or may not have made a difference in this case, but he argues such a safety measure should be standard practice.

“Whenever I’m on anything where we’re doing a significant stunt … I insist on an ambulance on-site,” says Palmer, who was a plaintiffs’ expert in the Jones litigation. “That’s what needs to happen in the industry.”

“We can’t eliminate every possible risk,” he adds, “but we have to do everything we reasonably can to prevent those things from happening.”

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