The family of Sarah Jones is still on the hunt for missing train footage taken the afternoon the Midnight Rider camera assistant was killed, which could help to show rail company CSX did not act accordingly to prevent the locomotive tragedy from happening.
Video from an earlier train shows crew members standing near the active tracks before the February 20 accident in rural Georgia. Just 45 minutes later, a CSX train collided with a hospital bed they’d placed in its path, killing Jones and injuring several others. During a Friday emergency hearing requested by CSX to seal further evidence from going public in the family’s ongoing wrongful death lawsuit, the Joneses’ attorney Stephen G. Lowry pushed to have CSX produce or at the very least file in court the “missing tape” from one train he says was never looked for or inadvertently written over, and which may or may not still exist on CSX-owned hard drives.
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During earlier testimony, CSX attorney Randall Jordan said most of the trains belonging to CSX were equipped with cameras on the nose of the train.
“It is called the loco-cam and the purpose of that is to record everything the engineer sees as he is going down the track,” Jordan said. “You can recover that footage if you do it in time. I think you have about a 72 hour window in order to recover that before it basically tapes over itself.”
Chatham County State Court Judge Gregory V. Sapp asked Jordan whether it was a system that was downloaded to a Cloud or other universal device, or one used exclusively by CSX. Jordan said it was an exclusive system. The locomotives are made by General Electric and have a specialized software program that runs the video feed once they’ve been downloaded. The judge asked Jordan if it was downloaded to a hard drive.
Jordan said it he thought it was, but wasn’t sure and joked, “That information is above my pay grade.”
Lowry, with the help of a computer technician and slide presentation, spoke about the different trains that passed over the trestle on Feb. 20.
“After the film crew arrived, train Q03220 goes by at about 3:28, and that video according to them has been written over,” Lowry said. “Although if you read the affidavit by the person, CSX officer Dylan Harrison, he never says if he went back and looked for the video. He just says that because they are written over every 72 hours, it is gone. And I thought something that Mr. Jordan mentioned to the court was very interesting, which is these are downloaded onto a hard drive. Well, I had just gone through this in another case where you have data that is written onto a hard drive. It is not that easy to erase. Data on a hard drive stays there; even if it is written over it can be found. In fact, Microsoft has a Department of Defense Standard for how you actually erase data from a hard drive. And it is a complex, long process that takes days to do.”
Lowry said his firm was willing to send in some computer forensics experts to help locate the video on the hard drive. He went on to explain how another video showed a number of people along the side of the tracks prior to the collision, which occurred around 4:25 PM. Footage from the train involved in the incident actually shows the crew is on the track.
“The reason why this is important is because CSX has repeatedly said to the police, to investigators and to the media, that they have unequivocally denied permission for anybody to be there,” Lowry said. “And that is not the case. This will obviously come out at the trial at some point; there are a number of emails between CSX and parties trying to get permission, and CSX is very open to the idea and that is the stance they take (in the emails). It isn’t until the morning of February 20 that they send an email saying that ‘we can’t support you.’ That is what the email says. It doesn’t say ‘You are denied permission’ or ‘You can’t be there,’ it says we cannot support you. That is all it says.”
Lowry re-emphasized how not one, but two different trains go by in the videos that show people right by the track, and CSX did nothing. Three trains passed that afternoon before the fatal one struck.
“We think there will be more (documents) that will show that when CSX knows that there is people in their right of way, close to the tracks, they have a procedure: Let the trains know, slow them down, get on the horn and send your people out there,” Lowry said. “There is a case that happened about a year before this one that when they saw two people next to the tracks, they called their local police, they called the CSX police, they called the CSX risk manager, and they sent them all out there to run off some guy who was actually doing some sort of survey work for the government and actually had permission to be out there.”
“In this case they had two trains that went by, saw people next to the tracks, and did nothing,” he continued. “When the incident train comes by, it goes through at 57 miles per hour, and never takes any steps to slow down before striking the film crew. It’s not until after it hits the film crew, after it crosses the bridge, that for the first time – the very first time – it starts trying to slow down that train.”
Lowry had his technician cue up the video of the train that passed at 3:36 PM.
“This is about 45 minutes before the incident train,” he said. “You can see the trestle in the background as they are approaching,” Lowry said, pointing to the screen. “There are people right there next to the track and right here there are people right next to the track. They are literally feet from the track. This isn’t the general vicinity, this is right there. So at 3:36 PM we know that at least one train went by and saw people right next to the tracks. And as Mr. Jordan himself said, the purpose of this video is to show what the engineers and conductors saw. So because of their own admission, we know that the engineers and conductors saw people right next to the track.”
“But there is a train that went by eight minutes before that one, and that is crucial evidence in this case,” he said, speaking about the “missing tape” from the second of four trains that traversed the trestle that day. “And that was not preserved, that was lost. (CSX) said it was never identified so it was never downloaded, and now we learned for the very first time that it was saved to a hard drive. We know they believe it has been overwritten.”
Lowry continued, saying that the dispatch communications between the train and the communications department also do not exist for the train in question. He added that CSX investigator is a very experienced person who has overseen hundreds of cases involving CSX employees or property. He said Harrison has stated in an affidavit that he immediately knew the case was going to litigation.
“So they know this is going to litigation, they know they have a duty to preserve evidence – and they don’t,” Lowry said.
Lowry also argued they’ve asked for other videos and photos that have yet to be disclosed.
“We do not have a discovery response at this point saying that they lost, didn’t download, over wrote or destroyed this video,” Lowry said. “We don’t have anything in the record. All we have is what they told us. At the every minimum we need to make sure we have a statement from them saying it is lost and cannot be found. The second part of that is that now we know it is potentially on a hard drive and we would ask for an order from your honor to search that hard drive.”
CSX attorney Michael Milton reminded the judge that his colleague Mr. Jordan never said he was 100 percent sure the videos were downloaded to a hard drive.
“Mr. Lowry has represented to the court that this information was stored on a hard drive. We don’t know for sure exactly how the medium is transferred, so I don’t want there to be any misperceptions about that,” Milton said. “The thing I want to make very clear is that we are not hiding any LDVR video, we are not withholding anything.”
He also said the only video he felt that was relevant to the case was the video showing the incident. “Which was preserved,” he said.
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