The National Transportation Safety Board has issued its final report on the Midnight Rider train accident in Georgia last year that took the life of camera assistant Sarah Jones, determining that that “the probable cause of the accident was the film crew’s unauthorized entry” onto the train trestle owned and operated by CSX Transportation.
“Contributing to the accident was the adjacent property owner’s actions to facilitate the film crew’s access to the right-of-way and bridge,” the report states. That could come as bad news for Rayonier, the giant timber company that owns the property surrounding the tracks and is still a party to several civil suits.
“CSX denied the film crew permission to film on CSX property,” concluded the report (read it here). “Because of contradictory information in the interviews, the investigation could not determine who made the final decision to disregard the denial and film on CSX’s bridge. As a result of this accident, one person died, and six were injured. Railroad property is private property. The film crew leadership had enough awareness about railroads to ask for CSX’s permission to film. In NTSB interviews, some of the film crew leadership stated that they thought others were handling the permission to be on CSX property; while others believed it was safe to film. This assumption was reckless, and it endangered the entire film crew.”
The NTSB, which investigates accidents, does not have the power to regulate or fine individuals or companies; it can, however, weigh in on “the probable cause” of an accident and offer recommendations. As a result of its probe made public today, the board recommended that all of Hollywood’s guilds and unions “work to create and distribute educational materials that emphasize that railroads are private property requiring the railroad’s authorization to enter, and that if authorization is given, everyone on scene must follow the railroad’s safety procedures to reduce hazards.”
“The NTSB is concerned that the film industry may not be aware of the risks of trespassing on railroad property,” the report states. “Operation Lifesaver is an advocacy organization that partners with governments and railroads to raise awareness for railroad safety. They train volunteers to deliver awareness presentations nationwide and create safety posters and videos. The film industry has not been a traditional audience for Operation Lifesaver outreach. The NTSB believes that partnership between the film industry and Operation Lifesaver will increase safety for film crews.”
Today’s report follows the involuntary manslaughter convictions this month of the film’s director Randall Miller, first assistant director Hillary Schwartz and unit production manager Jay Sedrish. It also comes on the heels of two other filming-related deaths on railroad tracks. Workout guru Greg Plitt was hit and killed by a train on January 17 while filming a power-drink commercial on railroad tracks in Burbank, and Achilles Williams was hit and killed by a train this month while filming a workout video on tracks in Buckhead, GA.
“Scenes on and near railroad tracks appear in a number of movies,” the report states. “However, it is not known how often any of the film crews trespassed on railroad property, or how often a film crew had the permission and cooperation of the railroad. Although this (Midnight Rider) accident involved an intentional disregard for CSX’s denial of access, trespassing by film crews may be due to a lack of awareness of the risks.”
Another agency, the Federal Railroad Administration, also is investigating the accident, though there is no timetable for that report. “Once completed, the investigation will identify the root cause of the accident, and we will take all appropriate enforcement actions,” said a spokesperson last fall for the FRA, which regulates safety on the railroads with railroad companies.