Three-plus months after Sarah Jones was killed while filming Midnight Rider on location in rural Georgia, Ronnie Sands was nearly killed by a bolt of electricity on the set of Selma in Atlanta. A few weeks later, a set dresser fell through a roof while striking the set in Montgomery, AL. Several extras on the civil rights pic also suffered heat exhaustion while shooting the final rally scene in sweltering heat at the Alabama State Capitol.
A call to the film’s director, Ava DuVernay, was referred to a spokesperson for the production, who told Deadline: “We are all deeply affected by injuries that occur in the workplace. After all, these involve our friends and colleagues. Any such incidents are promptly notified to the production insurers and are then reviewed by the loss adjustors. This is the process on which we are currently embarked.”
Sands was injured on the afternoon of June 4 while standing a few feet off the ground on a Condor elevating platform, setting up lights at the historic Wheat Street Baptist Church. “The lighting had been pre-rigged the day before by the electric rigging crew, which took them 12 hours to set up,” Sands told Deadline. “On the day of filming, the director of photography and the unit production manager decided that the Tungsten light on the Condors was not bright enough to shine through the stained glass windows of the church, and they decided to change the lighting from Tungsten to 18k HMI, the color temperature that is equal to sunlight and also one of the biggest and brightest lights used in the industry. This changeup put the first unit electric crew into a rush.”
Sands recalled, “They were yelling at us on the walkie-talkie, ‘How long is it going to take to get that bulb in there?’” He said he then noticed another crew member plugging the ballast into the generator. “Don’t do that while I’m still putting in the bulb and my head and hand are still inside the fixture,” Sands yelled down at him. “The breaker is off the ballast,” the guy yelled back. “Don’t be a pussy.” Sands said he then yelled at a fellow electrician to unplug the light. But it was too late. That’s when an arc of electricity flashed from the fixture and struck him in the face as 18,000 volts jolted into his right hand; ran up his arm and into his heart, neck and head; and threw him backward to the ground below.
“I am very lucky to be alive,” Sands said.
Besides human error, there also might have been mechanical failure; a piece of equipment called a 220-volt Snake Bite, which should have kept the current from traveling from the generator, was scorched by the blast of electricity. But even so, the power shouldn’t have been switched on until Sands was clear of the light fixture. Safety Bulletin No. 23, issued by the AMPTP Industry-wide Labor-Management Safety Committee, states: “Prior to energizing any systems, ensure that all personnel are clear of all electrical equipment connected to the system.” (Read all the safety bulletins here.)
Sands said he expected Selma Productions to file an incident report with the Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration so an investigation could determine the exact cause of the accident, and whether a faulty piece of equipment was at least partly responsible. But the company never filed a report with OSHA, and under federal law, was not required to. Under the Occupational Safety and Health Act, employers must only “report to OSHA the death of any employee from a work-related incident or the in-patient hospitalization of three or more employees as a result of a work-related incident within eight hours.” Since no one was killed and only one person hospitalized that day, no OSHA report was required. OSHA didn’t learn of the incident until November 11, when Sands’ fiancée, Kelly Shure, notified the agency of the accident. But by that time, it was too late for OSHA to do much of an investigation. Everything had been packed up, and everyone had gone home.
On December 22, OSHA sent Shure a letter stating that “the incident … was confirmed” by the production’s payroll company, Ease Entertainment Services, and that an investigation by OSHA’s Atlanta West Area Office found that “the production of the movie was completed and all parties and equipment were no longer in the state of Georgia. The area office contacted your fiancé’s employer, Ease Entertainment Services, who provided this office with a copy of the incident report. The incident report, which was filled out by your fiancé, reported that a witness ‘found a faulty connection that was wired wrong by Paramount Lighting Rentals.’ Additionally, we learned that your fiancé’s employer, Ease Entertainment Services, had a contract with Selma Productions Inc. (which) appears to be responsible since they were the one to hire, fire and direct employees’ work at the site. … Since the equipment and companies involved are no longer at the site, OSHA could not conduct an actual inspection to determine causative factors or whether a violation of OSHA’s standard occurred.”
Unable to work, Sands says he still suffers from aftereffects. A neurologist’s report from August, which Sands provided to Deadline, noted that he was still having “difficulty with cognition, memory and thinking, over and beyond the electrical pain in right arm.”
Sands said that his attorney “has sent certified letters to production and Paramount, all of which were returned, and then the same letters were sent out via regular mail. My lawyer still has not received a reply from the responsible parties. To this day, I’m still seeking the truth about what happened to me.”
Since the incident, a Georgia Workers’ Compensation claim was filed with the payroll company so that Sands could receive the medical treatment he still requires, plus $525 a week, which is not nearly enough to pay his bills. In July, his union, IATSE Local 479, assisted him from its emergency relief fund, and Sands says he’s grateful for that. Since then, however, he’s fallen behind in his rent and utility bills and has maxed out his credit cards. He also got an eviction notice in December and is facing homelessness. His fiancée has started a “survival fund” through GoFundMe.com that to date has raised a little more than $7,000 to help him pay his bills.
Meanwhile, the set decorator who fell through the roof did not return calls but has recovered and is working again. “The production helped both these guys out,” a crew member told Deadline. “They made sure they got Workers’ Comp and went above and beyond what they had to do. They made a concerted effort to make sure everyone was as safe as possible. We had multiple safety meetings. This was a special shoot.”
Several Selma crew members contacted by Deadline declined to discuss the accidents. One noted that in the wake of Jones’ death, people are reluctant to discuss on-set accidents because “they don’t want to scare production away from Georgia.”