EXCLUSIVE: New, surprising details have emerged about the on-set death of 27-year-old camerawoman Sarah Jones during the first day of filming on Midnight Rider. Crew members were not told about an email from railroad owner CSX denying them permission to shoot on the Doctortown train trestle in rural Georgia, as at least 20 members piled onto the tracks 25 to 30 feet above the water under dangerous conditions led by director Randall Miller. See newly released pictures below to see (up close) the train tracks they shot on and the small walkway. The train accident left Jones dead and eight others injured, three of them hospitalized. Specific details of what happened on the tracks on the afternoon of February 20 were revealed in a play-by-play report by the Department of Labor’s Occupational Health and Safety Administration, which was considered the lead investigating body on the case.
The 182-page investigative report (read it here), which included 86 photos of the Doctortown train trestle and surrounding area, was obtained via a Freedom of Information Act request sent by Deadline.com. Some pages have been redacted by the DOL. What has emerged is a timeline of what led up to the accident and the specifics of the tragedy itself that led to the indictment of director Miller, his wife/producer Jody Savin, unit production manager/exec producer Jay Sedrish and first assistant director Hillary Schwartz on criminal trespass and involuntary manslaughter charges. The trial is set to begin on March 9. Here is what the documents reveal:
Timeline of events
In January 2014, Midnight Rider‘s location manager (Charles Baxter) contacted CSX via telephone to gain permission to film on the tracks. He was told on January 27 via an email from CSX that the train company does not allow filming on the tracks because of “the safety of those accessing and working on their railroad.”
The location manager then forwarded the email to Sedrish as well as Miller and Savin, who share one email account.
On February 7, Sedrish and others walked onto the trestle to see if it would work for the dream sequence that Miller wanted to shoot. They were informed that the tracks and trestle belong to CSX and that it was an active track.
On February 14, two individuals (whose names were redacted in the report) and Sedrish “developed an email and sent it to CSX requesting permission to film on their track again. In the email letter, it was stated that only five (5) people would be on the tracks and that the location on the tracks would be south of the Doctortown Trestle (sic). … The employer’s representatives did not share the information with all of their crew members CSX’s email stating that the company could not support the request “based on concerns for the safety of those accessing and working on their railroad.” CSX suggested that the filmmakers “reach out to the short line railroads as they routinely will support filming…”
In the aftermath of the accident, some of Film Allman representatives told OSHA investigators that the email from CSX was confusing, but OSHA noted that no one from Film Allman contacted CSX for clarification. Sedrish told investigators that the email from CSX was a “no, but not a forceful ‘No.'” Sedrish said he then spoke to (name redacted) and “that they felt that they could do a shot on the tracks without anyone getting hurt.”
Savin said that (name redacted) read her the CSX email in which the train company said it would not support them shooting on their tracks. She also said that the unidentified male told her that CSX “knows how to say NO and that they are not saying NO,” and told Savin that two trains were coming down the track that day. Savin then said she told (name redacted) to talk to Sedrish about it. “Savin never got back with the (name redacted) or with Sedrish or CSX to determine if the company had permission to go on the train track/trestle,” the investigation revealed.
According to the report, “A lead employee (not named) who has safety and health responsibility on the set was forwarded the CSX email and did not tell the employees who work under her or any other ‘crew members’ about the CSX email” denying permission to be on the tracks.
OSHA noted that Sedrish signed an undated acknowledgement of the OSHA Compliance Agreement which said that Film Allman would provide a safe working environment. The report states that Miller, Sedrish and Savin “all acknowledged that they were aware of the hazards of working around active railroads.” Two scenes were removed from the script after CSX denied permission to film them on their property: a scene in which actors playing Gregg Allman (William Hurt) and Duane Allman (Wyatt Russell) were riding a motorcycle down a train track and another in which Gregg Allman rode a motorcycle on a track and turned off onto a road.
On the evening of February 19 — one day before the accident — an individual (whose name was redacted in the report) asked Sedrish if he wanted the safety bulletin on the railroad attached to the call sheet and Sedrish “said a resounding “NO, No, No, No. It looks good, send it.”
OSHA interviewed 22 employees for their investigation. Most employees indicated that tech scouts are routine on film shoots and are the time that safety is most looked at as department heads and many other crew members go to a site to see what is needed to do the job correctly and safely. “Randall Miller stated a Tech Scout did not take place for the train trestle because the site was about an hour and a half away and that they had about 30 people on the tech scout being paid $20 to $40 an hour,” says the report. “Mr. Miller stated that, ‘It was probably a financial reason we didn’t go there.'” Sedrish told investigators, however, that the reason there was no tech scout for the trestle shoot was because “they were not going to be bringing any generators or any major equipment to the site.”
By not complying with OSHA safety standards, “the company was able to save money and time by not transporting the dept. heads and lead workers to visit the film site and discuss safety issues, during a Technical Scout.”
Sedrish filled out paperwork declaring that the company had a safety program and conducted safety meetings. He stated that documented safety inspections were conducted before each shoot, and that personal protective gear (safety glasses, hard hats, safety shoes, etc.) were not required “for what was going on” for the Midnight Rider shoot. Those with knowledge of the shoot told Deadline previously that there was no on-set medic present on the first day of filming and that no safety meetings had been held before the crew went onto the tracks.
February 20: The day of the accident
Despite telling CSX in their previous email that only five people total would be on the tracks, the Midnight Rider filmmakers took 21 people onto the trestle late Thursday afternoon, including camera assistant Sarah Jones. One crew member wasn’t there, according to a court filing — the crew’s location manager Charles Baxter (who had relayed the CSX email to his bosses that they didn’t have permission to be on the tracks).
According to the report, after filming on the side of the tracks, Miller and an individual (name redacted) walked onto the trestle and then motioned the crew to come onto the trestle. Crew members were under the impression that they had permission to be on the tracks because of their bosses’ actions. Deadline previously reported that the crew was there to set up a dream sequence scene involving Hurt on a hospital bed, and, in fact, the shooting schedule obtained by Deadline showed the first day of shooting was specifically planned to take place on the train trestle.
One unidentified crew member said that “no employees were specifically assigned to watch for trains. Some employees were assigned to watch for automobiles and people walking through the area, so that they would not be picked up on film, and if they did see a train they would tell the film crew.”
According to the investigation, the crew began to set up the shot about 100 to 150 feet onto the train tracks, carrying the metal hospital bed onto the trestle and placing it perpendicular to the tracks. Crew members were walking and working about 25 to 30 feet above the water, and the west side of the trestle had no guard rails, so employees were within two feet of the edge of the open side of the trestle as they carried the bed and set it down. (OSHA said that, in itself, could have led to death from drowning and/or permanent injuries from hitting the water or solid surface.) On the east side of the trestle, wire ropes varied in height from a little over two feet to 41 inches, which OSHA noted was “inadequate for keeping crew members from falling off.” In addition, there were multiple iron supports that protruded into the walkway, hindering any escape route.
While setting up the scene, a crew member (name redacted) asked if another train would be coming. Another individual (name redacted) said that they only expected two and that two already had come by so no more trains were expected, “but if a train does come by, to get the equipment and get off the tracks by going southward (the direction from which the other two trains came).”
The south end of the train trestle is about four feet above the ground. The wooden walkway next to the train tracks is only 2 feet, 11 inches wide. Both that and a metal walkway were only inches away from the track (see photos).
What happened next, per the investigation:
Someone else then asked if we see a train, how long do we have before the trains gets [sic] here. [Redacted] said that we have a minute before the trains gets [sic] here.
While the scene was being filmed, the crew members on the trestle had to stand on the north side of the hospital bed so that they would not be in the scene. All of these employees were in the path of any train. While filming this scene another train was spotted coming down the tracks. The train was coming from the south heading northward.
The crew then began trying to get themselves and the bed off of the trestle. The bed being carried blocked the way for the people trying to get off of the trestle. The bed started to fall apart while being carried off of the trestle and fell onto the tracks, trapping an employee’s foot. The employee got his foot free a few seconds before the train reached the trestle and the bed was stood up on end on the east side of the of the [sic] track.
The bed fell back onto the tracks just as the train reached the trestle. The train struck the bed which caused the deceased to be pulled towards the passing train.
Jones was struck in the head, fracturing her skull while other employees huddled on the east side of the trestle on a narrow metal walkway. As the train traveled through the trestle just inches away from them, it sent debris flying. Seven other employees were physically injured (one suffered from PTSD) and were taken to the hospital, and three were admitted.
“Indifference to safety and health”
According to the report, because the bed was positioned perpendicular to the tracks, “the design limited the width of the walkway that employees could have used to exit the trestle.” OSHA also noted that the production company was able to save money “by stealing the shot.” OSHA explained that the practice meant “when you trespass on someone else’s property and take a picture or video without their permission to be on the site.”
Miller who co-wrote (with Savin) directed and produced the indie rock film CBGB can be heard on the film’s DVD commentary track talking about what he calls their “guerilla shooting” methods and notes that they stole shots on location around New York City’s subways and streets and in Central Park.
Miller, Savin, Sedrish and Schwartz all worked together on CBGB, which also came under criticism by the head of the Savannah Film Commission for for disregarding safety issues. One CBGB crew member told Deadline earlier this year that the production crew “never got a single safety bulletin” including a heat advisory, despite shooting through the hot Georgia summer.
In the acknowledgement of OSHA compliance that Sedrish filled out on behalf of Film Allman, he said the Midnight Rider production would provide a safe working environment.
The investigation further identified several motives for the filmmakers to push for the train trestle shot:
If the scene had to be cut form (sic) the script, the director would have had to go back to Gregg Allman and (redacted) to get approval from them and demonstrate what they were going to do to make up for that part of the script.
Also, shooting the scene here prevented the company from having to travel to another train trestle location. There was another trestle in Macon, GA. However, the financial obligation of taking the crew there was also considered and the decision to go there was cancelled.
Also, in order to satisfy the Director’s vision of the scene for the movie.
OSHA also noted that “the Director can control who is hired to work on a film. 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 that can deliver what the movie calls for.”
Miller told investigators afterward that an individual (name redacted) told him “there were spotters on the tracks.” However, the report states that Film Allman “did not establish any safety measures such as establishing spotters in both directions of the track at a sufficient distance to be able to alert employees of the coming train in ample time for them to exit the trestle with their gear and set props.”
And, according to the report, the crew was working on a live railroad track “without any safety procedures established such as securing the track from any type of train traffic in the area or having a plan that would allow ample time for everyone to exit the trestle with all of their equipment and props. This exposed employees to a hazard of being struck by a train traveling on the tracks.” That could have been avoided had they obtained permission to film on the tracks, it states.
The DOL and OSHA stated that Film Allman purposefully and intentionally disregarded their responsibility under the OSHA Act, constituting “plain indifference to safety and health”: “The employer allowed employees to go out onto a train trestle without permission from the owners of the railroad track (CSX).” It also stated that they did not take any safety precautions to protect the crew from trains on the tracks. Further, it reiterated that the filmmakers did not share the CSX email with the crew that read, “Unfortunately, CSX will not be able to support your request.”
The investigation began the day after the accident, when OSHA met with Sedrish and a union rep. It appears to have continued through the end of the summer. On August 14th, OSHA formally cited Film Allman for “one willful and one serious” safety violations and also issued the above letter to the parents of Sarah Jones, Richard and Elizabeth Jones.
After the accident, Gregg Allman settled out of court with the filmmakers after trying to stop Midnight Rider from going forward. On Tuesday night at New York’s Beacon Theater, he gave his final performance as a member of the Allman Brothers Band, ending a 45-year career onstage. The first set included the song “Midnight Rider.” They concluded with “Whipping Post” and “Trouble No More.”
Meanwhile, director Miller has been quietly putting together another film project called Slick Rock Trail about a washed-up, hopeless, long-haired old rocker with addiction problems. He had been trying to keep the project under wraps, and the script was circulated without a name on its title page. In the script, one of the members of a rock band says: “Two drummers. That will be a train wreck.”