After five days of rumors, accusations and finger-pointing, few facts about the fatal Feb. 20 train accident in Wayne County have been released. A 20-member crew, based in Savannah, was filming on a narrow train trestle near Jesup when a northbound freight train —apparently unexpected —struck a prop mattress they had laid on the track.
Sarah Jones, 27, an assistant camera operator, was part of the crew for the movie Midnight Rider. In the scramble to get out of the way, she was killed by flying debris. At least eight other crew members were injured. Producer/director Randall Miller was pulled from the tracks by another crew member at the last minute.
Wayne County Sheriff’s Office detective Joe Gardner told reporters Thursday that Miller’s Unclaimed Freight Productions, which is making the film based on rock legend Gregg Allman’s autobiography, had permission from the Rayonier paper products company to shoot on their land.
On Friday, Gardner was asked if rail owner CSX had authorized the use of the tracks for filming.
“CSX has told me they were aware they were out there, but they did not have permission to be on the train tracks,” he said.
With that statement, the floodgates opened. The idea—still unconfirmed by CSX—that Unclaimed Freight might have taken their crew onto the tracks without stringent safety checks, to “grab the shot,” produced waves of outrage through Georgia’s tightly-knit film community.
The Atlanta-based Jones’ friends and colleagues took to the Internet calling producers - and Savannah-based Meddin Studios, where most of Midnight Rider is being lensed - “murderers,” among other things.
Filming on live railroad tracks requires strict permits from the line owner, which provides train schedules and re-routes trains ahead of time, if necessary. In addition, “spotters” with walkie-talkies are utilized to warn the crew if a train is approaching.
It has not been made clear if these safeguards were in place before Thursday’s tragedy. Gardner has not spoken with the media since Friday, and repeated phone calls from Connect went unreturned.
Monday afternoon, a representative for CSX corporate communications told Connect they could not comment one way or the other “because of the ongoing investigation.”
It’s common practice for out-of-state film companies like Unclaimed Freight, which is based in Los Angeles, to hire local and regional crew.
Meddin, which includes several soundstages, professional equipment rental and other services, worked with Unclaimed Freight on last year’s made-in-Savannah CBGB.
In a weekend e-mail to variety.com, Meddin creative director Nick Gant insisted no corners were cut during the Wayne County shoot.
“This is not guerrilla filmmaking or a group of indie film makers trying to grab a shot,” he said. “It was weeks of communications and scouting multiple places. You had to have access to get onto the site. We have 20- to 30-year veterans in all the departments, crew is extremely qualified…”
Miller and the Unclaimed Freight staff did not respond to interview requests. A statement issued last week reads: “All of us on the production team are devastated by the tragic accident that happened today. Our thoughts and prayers are with the family of our crew member.”
It is also not clear when or if production on Midnight Rider will continue.
Meddin’s Gant, meanwhile, insisted the immediate focus should be elsewhere.
“We are spending too much time trying to place blame on a horrific accident,” he told variety.com. “Sarah’s actions probably saved other people’s lives. The crew, our families and our community are very tight. We are able to hand select who we are going to spend long days and weeks together. Sarah and every crew member were friends, family and professionals at what they did.
“We need to celebrate their accomplishments, their lives and support their families as we move forward.”