The Federal Railroad Administration and the National Transportation Safety Board are still in the throes of investigating the Midnight Rider case, both looking for the “root” and “probable cause” of the fatal accident that took place on railroad tracks in Georgia during the first day of filming for the Gregg Allman biopic in February.
Both reports could be out before the involuntary manslaughter and criminal trespass trial of filmmakers Randall Miller, Jody Savin, Jay Sedrish and Hillary Schwartz gets underway on March 9 of next year.
The accident took the life of 27-year-old camera assistant Sarah Jones and injured several others on a train trestle when the crew, led by director Miller, set up on a train tracks to film the scene when a train came barreling down, crashing into a metal bed put on the tracks for the shot. The crash sent shrapnel into the crew as they tried to escape, running single file down the side plank while others hung off the side of the trestle to try to save their lives.
According to an FRA spokesman: “The FRA is investigating the February 20, 2014 accident that occurred on the CSX rail line in Nahunta, Georgia. Once completed, the investigation will identify the root cause of the accident, and we will take all appropriate enforcement actions.” There is no timetable for its report which would then be available to the appropriate authorities. There are a multitude of applicable laws that can be looked at, including one that deals with intent. The FRA regulates safety on the railroads with railroad companies.
From the train personnel perspective, there is a sequence of events that must happen once permission is granted to be on the tracks. In fact, there is a specific chain of command: A superintendent would have let the dispatcher know to contact the flagman who would then have been at the scene along with what is known in the industry as a “Railroad Bull” — every train company has their own police force who operate under federal guidelines and are federally licensed because they carry guns across state lines. They work in tandem with the FRA and the NTSB. In fact, had permission been given, personnel are notified about time and date and a bulletin and something called an ‘S’ order are given out every day to alert employees of what’s happening on a particular track.
Had permission been given, the flagman, in this case, would have been deployed to the track as he would be responsible for that particular track and the safety of others on that day. It’s understood that railroad personnel were not deployed on February 20 because no permission had been granted except for the land surrounding the train track by land owner Rayonier.
The Midnight Rider case is also still an open investigation at the NTSB. It could take up to a year for the completion and release to the public. Once that accident report is completed, it then goes to the NTSB board to look over. The NTSB, which investigates accidents, does not have the power to regulate or fine individuals or companies; it will, however, weigh in on “the probable cause” of the accident, according to an NTSB spokesman.
According to one former long-time employee of the railways, typically when there is an accident a very specific protocol is put in place that includes getting railroad personnel off the train — and they know to not to talk to anyone (not local authorities or anyone on the land or the track) but management. The train company, traditionally, then looks at various factors involved in the accident including whether all protocols are met, the speed of the train, and the conditions surrounding the event.