After days of rumors, conjecture and finger-pointing, the office investigating last week’s fatal train accident in Wayne County has issued a preliminary report.
A 20-member crew from Savannah was filming on a narrow train trestle near Jesup Thursday afternoon, Feb. 20, 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.
According to an incident report released Monday by the Wayne County sheriff’s department, railway owner CSX has e-mails in which it denies the production company access to its tracks.
The exchange was between location manager Charlie Baxter and Carla Groleau of the rail company.
Midnight Rider executive producer Jay Sedrish, interviewed by a detective, was asked point blank if the company had permission to shoot on the tracks and trestle.
“That’s complicated,” he replied.
Wayne County detective Joe Gardner told reporters a few hours after the accident 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.
The next day, Gardner was asked if 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—at the time still unconfirmed by CSX—that producers 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 Unclaimed Freight and Meddin Studios—where most of Midnight Rider is being lensed—“murderers,” among other things.
Filming on live railroad tracks requires permits from the line owner, which provides train schedules and re-routes trains ahead of time, if necessary. The movie industry has standard safety guidelines for such things.
It’s a dangerous business under the best of circumstances.
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.
The Wayne County report says crew members Joyce Gilliard and Izabeau Giannakopoulos were taken to Memorial University Medical Center in Savannah. Their condition is not known.
Treated at Wayne Memorial Hospital were Zachary Graber, James C. Dewet, Margery Kimbrough and Tonya Verna.
Several others, according to the report, were examined by EMS personnel but refused treatment.
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 if or when production on the movie will continue.
Monday afternoon, the Savannah Film Office said Unclaimed Freight had “withdrawn its filming requests” for this week. Principal photography was scheduled to begin Monday and last for 24 days, at 20 Savannah locations. So far, the City had only received requests for this week.