Very sad news out of Savannah, Georgia, as you have probably heard by now – an accident on the set of ‘Midnight Rider’, the Gregg Allman story, killed a camera assistant and wounded seven additional crew this past week. This accident should have never happened, and it’s the latest in a long string of film industry workplace mishaps and deaths, almost all of them completely preventable. We should all be operating with a heightened sense of awareness for our safety and for the safety of those around us. Too often we are asked to work in dangerous situations by people in charge who are reckless and largely unconcerned for the safety and welfare of the crew.
In the case of ‘Midnight Rider’, the crew did not have permission to be on the train tracks, yet there they were – setting up a bed for a shot on the tracks, walking along a trestle bridge to get to the setup. Little did they know there was a train headed directly toward them. With less than a minute to clear the tracks, the crew ran toward their base camp, along the narrow plank walkway, to escape the train. As the train hit the bed on the tracks, debris went flying, hitting crew members, and knocking one of them onto the tracks, where she was run over by the train and killed. She was 27 years old. She was a Second Assistant Camera person – also known in some parts as a clapper/loader. Her name was Sarah Jones, and she is every one of us.
I never had the privilege of knowing Sarah Jones, but by all accounts, she was a lovely young lady. Her life was in the ramping-up stage. She was working her butt off, as we all did and still do. She had ambition and dreams and probably plans for the weekend. But last Thursday, all of that was cut short by a series of bad decisions that she had no part in making.
When we work around trains, or fire, or dangerous animals, there is always a safety meeting held beforehand. Plans are discussed, and an outline of how things should go is laid out. I do not know if that happened in this particular case, but according to legitimate investigation, the crew was not supposed to be on the tracks. They did not have permission.
People associated with the production end of this film have denied culpability. Although, when producer Jay Sedrish was asked if they had a permit to be on the tracks, he responded, “That’s complicated.” That’s NOT complicated – they were denied a permit to be on the tracks. No permit, no permission. You don’t put your crew in harm’s way, period. You don’t lead them like lambs onto a HOT TRAIN TRACK with NO PERMIT. That’s not complicated. That’s criminal.
My heart goes out to Sarah and her huge group of friends and family. My heart goes out to the additional crew members who were also injured, physically and emotionally. One such crew member was a hair artist with whom I worked on ‘Sleepy Hollow’. She is probably going to be out of work for some time due to her injuries. THAT is complicated. I am furious on her behalf.
I am concerned for the crew who witnessed this accident. The psychological trauma that this incident has caused is unthinkable. It’s like being in a war zone – witnessing your buddy’s death, and the serious injury of other friends. That is damaging. We’re not fighting a war. We’re making movies. MOVIES.
There is a really beautiful movement gathering steam in our industry right now called ‘Slates for Sarah’ – it’s a Facebook page. Productions from all over the world are putting tributes to Sarah on their slates, and posting photos to the page. This outpouring of support and love for our fallen filmmaking sister is a very moving tribute to the life of a young woman who senselessly died at work. Any one of us could have been in Sarah Jones’ shoes that day on the tracks. Sarah Jones is all of us. We all feel her loss, even if we didn’t know her.
There have been many incidents in the past of deaths in our industry – whether from carelessness, recklessness, neglect, or too many hours. There have been passionate entreaties from the likes of Haskell Wexler and others. Safety in our business should NOT be an afterthought. Safety should not be limited only to permits for filming on train tracks, but should be extended to things like shorter working days to reduce fatigue and burnout – Gavin Polone wrote about this in a beautiful piece. It’s a huge problem and no one wants to talk about it. There have been so many serious accidents that Wikipedia actually has a full morbid list of them. You don’t see lists like this for people who work at libraries or shopping centers or universities. No, you see them in our industry. I will leave you to your own devices to figure out why that is – but hint, hint: it’s NOT COMPLICATED.
I would like to leave you with a thought today, and that is that we need to actively look out for one another and speak up when we have concerns about the safety of our workplace. Technically there should be a union steward or “shop steward” on the job that we can talk to about concerns like this, but in all of my 50+ movies and 3+ TV series, I have never met one. Perhaps IATSE needs to step up and make this a more visible feature in the workplace. I can’t think of a better time than now to do that.
Rest in peace, Sarah Jones. And get well soon to the seven other injured crew members. My thoughts and prayers will be with all of the ‘Midnight Rider’ crew. Please take a look at ‘Slates for Sarah’ and spread the word.