Film accident exposes safety weaknesses on the set

Sarah Jones, of Atlanta, was killed by an train in February while filming a Greg Allman biopic on this trestle over the Altamaha River in Wayne County. Prosecutors are considering whether to press charges. The death of the 27-year-old camera assistant has prompted calls for greater safety in the movie industry. RANDY THOMPSON

Combined ShapeCaption
Sarah Jones, of Atlanta, was killed by an train in February while filming a Greg Allman biopic on this trestle over the Altamaha River in Wayne County. Prosecutors are considering whether to press charges. The death of the 27-year-old camera assistant has prompted calls for greater safety in the movie industry. RANDY THOMPSON

Georgia’s rising reputation in the film industry takes a hit.

In coastal Georgia, prosecutors are weighing criminal charges in the death of a 27-year-old Atlanta woman struck by a train while filming a Greg Allman biopic in February.

The tragedy on a narrow trestle in rural Wayne County has prompted hand wringing in the entertainment community about movie set safety. It’s also exposed weaknesses in how Georgia polices the same film industry it’s working to recruit, and dented its image as a new go-to-state for making movies.

“It’s hurt Georgia’s reputation,” said Jay Self, who was until recently head of the film office in the city of Savannah.

“This is a place that’s still struggling for respect nationally and this happens and it feeds this idea that we’re not as good as the big guys.”

Sheriffs’ investigators in South Georgia last week turned over preliminary findings of their two-month probe. Several federal regulatory agencies are also looking into the accident and civil lawsuits are a certainty.

Sarah Jones’ death has been cast as the most significant blow to the film industry since a helicopter plunged to the ground on the set of the Twilight Zone movie in California in 1983, killing star Vic Morrow and two child actors.

A review by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution shows that movie set safety in Georgia is policed entirely by federal officials with OSHA, the national workplace safety watchdog, because the state has no locally-based agency of its own, as is the case in the longtime moviemaking powerhouse of California. Local governments, which must issue permits to film on public property, check to see if a film production has insurance and whether it poses any danger to local residents. But they don’t oversee on-set safety.

Peter Dooley, a consultant for the National Council on Occupational Safety and Health, said OSHA tries but they are chronically understaffed and struggle to issue fines substantial enough to alter behavior.

“At the day to day level, there is so much more that needs to be done to send a message,” Dooley said.

Georgia also lacks the union muscle of more traditional entertainment industry hubs like California and New York. And among the state’s most attractive selling points is that it is cheap.

Still, those who work in Georgia’s film business say that doesn’t mean it is unsafe and chafe at the suggestions that Jones’ death demonstrates that the state isn’t ready for its close up .

David Harland Rousseau, a longtime actor and director in Georgia, summed up the argument this way: “‘Good ol’ Georgia, they don’t know what they’re doing down there, bless their hearts.’”

Rousseau and others note that those in the decision-making roles on the Midnight Rider set were from California.

The film was produced by Unclaimed Freight, based in Pasadena, Calif. and owned by Randall Miller, who was also the director. Through a spokesman, Miller declined to comment.

‘We ran for our lives’

Jones was, by all accounts, an eager and enthusiastic crew member when she arrived on the set of “Midnight Rider” as a camera assistant. A South Carolina native who attended the College of Charleston, she’d moved to Atlanta to be closer to the movie industry action.

“She fell head over heels for it,” said Chris Clark, a former boyfriend who also works in the film industry.

Fueled by generous tax credits worth hundreds of millions of dollars, movie and television production in Georgia has skyrocketed in recent years. In fiscal year 2013 alone, 142 feature films and television productions filmed in the state. Economic development officials say that translates into $940 million in direct investment.

Jones was part of the state’s Hollywood boom. She had previously worked on “Vampire Diaries” and “Drop Dead Diva” and was excited about coming aboard the Allman movie, starring William Hurt, friends said.

On Feb. 20, records show, the crew trekked from Savannah to a rural stretch of Wayne County. The production had permission from logging company Rayonier to be on their timber land. But Wayne County Sheriff Det. Joe Gardner said the crew did not have the needed permission from CSX to be on the active railroad tracks that sliced through the property.

The crew had heaved a metal bed onto a train trestle to film a dream sequence with Hurt when a northbound train bore down.

“It came out of nowhere,” hairstylist Joyce Gilliard recalled. “The crew, we ran for our lives.”

It was on them in a matter of seconds. Jones was killed and six others were injured, Gilliard clung to the side of the trestle. Her arm snapped from the pressure of the train speeding by and she required reconstructive surgery.

Movie sets, with their explosions and car chases, can be dangerous places to work. Seven workers died in the motion picture and sound recording industries in 2012, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. That’s the most recent year for which data is available.

But the industry is also heavily unionized and organized labor has worked to protect crew members and actors through regulations and safety bulletins.

Jones’ death has sparked a discussion about whether movie executives, anxious to bring in a movie on time and under budget are taking advantage of eager — often young — crew members who can make less in a year than the camera equipment they handle.

“This is a creative business, a competitive business and among those in it there is a strong desire to ‘get the shot.’ It’s a matter of professional pride,” Rousseau said.

Gilliard has become a crusader for better move set safety, saying crew members need to be empowered to speak up.

Clark agrees and has met with federal OSHA officials about creating a 30-hour workplace safety training program specifically for movie crews. But union members in Georgia — hungry for business to remain in the state — claim that the issue is not specific to the state.

“This is not a Georgia problem,” said Clark, a union member. “This is a tragedy that could have happened anywhere.”

Georgia relies on unions

Federal safety records obtained by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution through a Freedom of Information Act request show there have been three federal OSHA investigations since 2010 on movie sets in Georgia. Two resulted in fines, although both were negotiated down.

C4 Productions, which produced “The Hunger Games,” was fined $4,200 in 2013 when three employees working on a set were injured after they fell 22 feet. The structure they were on collapsed. The proposed penalty was originally $7,000.

In 2011, 2oth Century Fox paid $5,500 for two serious violations on the movie “Three Stooges.” That’s less than half of the proposed $16,000 in penalties and a slap on the wrist for the giant movie studio. An OSHA inspector driving by the set in downtown Atlanta saw two workers on an aerial left demolishing a set without protective equipment, such as hard hats.

A striking irony is that in Georgia — a right-to-work state in a region notoriously hostile to labor unions — relies on the unions to ensure productions are following the rules.

“The union does a tremendous amount to ensure the crews safety,”said Lee Thomas, head of the Georgia Film Office. “Most studios also have a person who is charge of safety to double check everything on the set as well.”

“When the rules are followed and the proper permitting is in place, being on a movie set is one of the safest jobs you can have,” she said.

Midnight Rider halted production after the fatal accident and the picture’s future seemed uncertain. But discussions are underway to revive the shooting in June.

That’s sparked a boycott campaign on social media sites.

“We have expressed our obvious concerns regarding this production starting again,” Matthew Miller, vice president with the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees, wrote in a letter to members.

“As uncomfortable as this is, we cannot prevent them from starting up again. Whether or not they can get people to work for them is a decision that those people will have to make for themselves.”

If filming resumes, however, it won’t be in Georgia. The film’s producers are considering finishing the film in Los Angeles.