A Train, a Narrow Trestle and 60 Seconds to Escape: How 'Midnight Rider' Victim Sarah Jones Lost Her Life

 Randy Thompson Photography; Bobby LaBonge

The Feb. 20 death of 27-year-old camera assistant Sarah Jones on the set of Midnight Rider outside Doctortown, Ga., spread grief and anger through Hollywood. It has led to an industrywide reckoning on safety standards and inspired some Oscars attendees to wear black ribbons on their lapels in her memory. Many of the details of the accident remain murky and unknown. But now a THR reconstruction, based on an exclusive eyewitness account and interviews with Jones’ parents and others, reveals harrowing new details of what happened when a 20-person film crew tried to shoot a scene on a live train track.

Read THR's Exclusive Interview With The Parents of Sarah Jones

Joyce Gilliard, a 42-year-old hairstylist working on Midnight Rider, an indie biopic about Gregg Allman featuring William Hurt as the 1970s rocker, began feeling anxious about the shoot from the moment she arrived at the 110-year-old bridge trestle over the Altamaha River in Wayne County, a wild, untamed land full of rivers, Spanish moss and gnats. “As soon as I got to the location, I started to feel funny,” she said during a series of interviews. “It didn’t feel right. I didn’t feel safe there.”

The 110-year-old bridge over the Altamaha River, Wayne County, Ga. 

Jones, already known in the local production community as an indefatigable worker with a cheery disposition, apparently didn’t reveal any concerns to co-workers. But her father, Richard Jones, says that in a phone conversation the night before she died, his daughter told him she was “nervous about a few things.” He says, “She was a little bit surprised about it being low-budget. … She made a comment that some of the people asking her questions should have known more than her, and she thought that was odd.” The day she died, says her father, was her first on the set. (For the full, exclusive interview with Jones' parents, click here.)

EARLIER: Hundreds Mourn Sarah Jones at Emotional Memorial

As a barefoot Hurt paced, rehearsing his lines, Gilliard watched nervously. She was responsible for the actor’s hair, and as the wind picked up, she darted in and out of shots before retreating behind the cameras, where she traded small talk with Jones.

As the day wore on, director Randall Miller moved the shoot from the land beside the river onto the narrow gridwork of the trestle itself, which extends over the edge of the Altamaha. The trestle’s wood and metal bottom was covered with pebbles and had gaping holes in some places. The blustery wind rang through the girders, making it hard to stay steady, says Gilliard.

From shore, several dozen yards away, a voice shouted to the crew that in the event a train appeared, everyone would have 60 seconds to clear the tracks. “Everybody on the crew was tripping over that,” says Gilliard. “A minute? Are you serious?” By now, she and two other crewmembers were nervous enough that before shooting, they gathered in an informal prayer circle. “Lord, please protect us on these tracks,” murmured Gilliard. “Surround us with your angels and help us, Lord.”

While Gilliard prayed, Jones helped load film, monitor the cameras and transport gear. A fresh-faced South Carolinian with a passion for travel and books, Jones wasn’t really the type to fret much. The crew was filming a dream sequence, and they had placed a twin-size metal-framed bed and mattress in the middle of the tracks. Then, Gilliard looked up and saw a light in the distance, followed by the immense howl of a locomotive. It was a train — and it was hurtling toward them.

VIDEO: ‘Midnight Rider’ Victim Sarah Jones Remembered on Oscars Broadcast

Two stories high, screaming with the sound of a blast horn and possibly brakes, the train was nearly as wide as the trestle. Gilliard says Miller yelled at everyone to run. Jones, several bags slung over each shoulder, shouted something about what to do with the expensive camera equipment. “Drop it!” Gilliard and others yelled. “Just drop it!”

The only viable escape route to the closest shore lay in running toward the approaching train, now traveling, by one estimate, at almost 60 mph. Gilliard tried to make her way onto the metal gangplank parallel to the tracks. Miller and another crewmember began tugging at the bed, trying to remove it from the train’s path, fearing it might cause a derailment. But as the train approached, Gilliard says, they abandoned their efforts.

Hairstylist Joyce Gilliard, injured on the set of "Midnight Rider," at her home. (Photo credit: Terry Manier)

Before Gilliard knew it, the train was upon her. She found herself clinging to one of the girders. But the blast of pressure and wind from the train’s passing ripped Gilliard’s left arm away from her body and straight into the train. It snapped like a stick. With one hand still on the girder, Gilliard looked down and saw bone sticking out of her sweater. And then she saw blood. She grabbed a sheet that had come loose from the mattress and wrapped her bleeding arm inside it. With the train howling past just inches behind her, Gilliard threw herself onto two metal wires that stretched between the girders and along the gangplank, thrust her head out over the river below and shut her eyes. “I saw my life, my kids, my family, all of it before me,” she says. “I was sure I was going to die.”

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One of the first things she saw when she opened her eyes again was a lifeless Jones, her body and face mangled. Like Gilliard, Jones had tried to find shelter on the gangplank. But when the train hit the bed and mattress, it sent debris flying. Something may have hit Jones, possibly propelling her into the train’s path. In the melee, Miller also fell on the tracks. A still photographer nearby managed to pull him away just in time. He was sobbing, Gilliard says, trying to cope with the disaster. Hurt also survived unscathed. The traumatized crew helped collect Jones’ body. A team of paramedics arrived within 20 minutes, and a helicopter touched down shortly after.

Within an hour after the incident, Gilliard was airlifted to a Savannah hospital to be treated for a compound fracture in her arm and other injuries. Five other crewmembers also required medical care. A police investigation was opened, and federal officials soon were swarming the marshy countryside asking about permissions, permits, easements and the complex language of film contracts.

Click above to enlarge image. 

The multiple investigations since have widened to include the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration and the Georgia Bureau of Investigation. Georgia law enforcement authorities are treating the investigation into Jones’ death as a negligent homicide, setting the stage for the biggest safety-related scandal to rock Hollywood in at least a decade.

The exact details of what precautions were — or were not — taken on the set that day and whether the production even had permission to film on the tracks are being sorted out. But in the days following the disaster, recriminations of shockingly lax safety protocols began to emerge.

“This was no accident,” says Ray Brown, president of the Motion Picture Studio Mechanics union local 479 in Atlanta and a Jones colleague, suggesting the incident was avoidable. “When I have done train work or around trains for smaller productions up to major blockbusters, there are always several railroad personnel there with their hard hats, glasses and radios, and I can’t imagine a more structured safety protocol even beyond airlines than the rail system.”

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Jones’ parents are reluctant to cast blame until investigations are complete. A shaken Miller called them after the incident to express his condolences. “I don’t know myself really what part Randy Miller played in all of this, but he was very upset that day,” says Richard Jones. “He was saying he was so sorry.” Since then, the Joneses have heard nothing from top execs associated with the film.

Their daughter’s death prompted a tidal outpouring of grief and anger from around the world. The filmmaking team has received death threats (though executive producer Nick Gant, who was attacked on Facebook for appearing to have posted insensitive comments, is telling friends that his account was hacked and that he deleted the hacker's comments when he discovered them). By Sunday night, more than 60,000 had signed an online petition demanding that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences include Jones in its “In Memoriam” video segment. Instead, the Academy recognized her in an onscreen photo and caption just before it went to a commercial.

But for Gilliard and the other members of the crew that day, the death of Jones always will be inextricably linked to a lonely patch of Georgia railroad.

The day felt strange from the very beginning, says Gilliard. She and the rest of the crew had gathered at a studio in Savannah that morning, when they were told they’d be traveling to a location to shoot a “camera test.” The crew was quiet and reserved as they passed fields and railroad tracks, arriving about two hours later at the massive metal trestle that spans a portion of the Altamaha River.

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CSX, the Florida-based railway company that owns the tracks, easement and trestle where Jones died, told the Wayne County Sheriff’s Office in the early hours of the investigation that it never granted Midnight Rider’s producers permission to film on the tracks in the first place.

“According to the CSX employee,” Sgt. Ben Robertson wrote in a report obtained by the media, “the production company had previously been denied permission to film on the trestle, and there was electronic correspondence to verify that fact.” Robertson’s report noted that a member of Miller’s crew, when asked whether permission was granted, replied, “It’s complicated.”

Miller, who has engaged noted Savannah defense attorney Donnie Dixon, declined through a New York public relations firm to provide specifics about what safety precautions were taken. Other senior managers on the film, including the line producer, first assistant director and location manager, did not respond to requests for comment. Lee Donaldson, a friend of Jones and a local Georgia union official, put it bluntly. “It’s not complicated; you either have permission or you don’t.”

Several Hollywood producers question whether there were shortcuts or oversights in the production. “Every train, every airplane, every airport, every shoot I’ve ever done, there’s always been a coordinator that you hire on your staff to coordinate it all, to communicate to crew, to any train operators, linemen, whatever,” says Harry Bring, a producer of one of the first television shows Jones worked on, Lifetime’s Army Wives. Gilliard says she saw no such officials. “It doesn’t seem like precautions and procedures, both legal and common sense, were taken,” adds Bring. “If they didn’t have permission to be on the tracks, why in the hell were they there?”

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In addition to railway safety personnel monitoring the set, Brown, the Atlanta union official, says all crew and cast should have been provided with call sheets with detailed notes on safety. Gilliard claims no such call-sheet notes were provided and no evidence that they existed has emerged.

Ordinarily, producers say, a location shoot like this also would have included an on-site medic. But Gilliard recalls that when Hurt required a Band-Aid for a minor abrasion, he had to get one from a costume designer who happened to have one in her bag. “That’s when we all knew that there was no medic,” recalls Gilliard. In fact, she says, there was not one safety meeting for the shoot on the tracks that day.

According to one media report, Miller may have cut corners before. A local news station released a DVD made by Miller’s production company, Unclaimed Freight, in which crewmembers bragged about their “guerrilla style” filmmaking during the production of the 2013 movie CBGB, which included allowing a small child to roam in a field of cows and another scene in which a piano was dropped down a staircase. In the DVD, Miller says, “I don’t think it’s dangerous at all to have a little kid running with cows, do you think? No. No.”

Director Miller, whose company, Unclaimed Freight, was producing "Midnight Rider." (Photo credit: Dan Steinberg/Invision/Ap)

Gilliard relaxed a little as the initial filming got underway. Two trains rumbled past without incident. When she and others asked whether any more trains were expected, the answer came back: a definitive “No.” The warm weather and camaraderie on the set was a pleasure. But when Miller directed everyone to move out onto the trestle, Gilliard’s stomach tightened once again. She was afraid of heights and never had learned to swim. Jones and Gilliard had worked together before, and Gilliard was happy to see the younger woman. A native of Columbia, S.C., now living in Atlanta, Jones was gifted with optimism, a knack for following instructions and a can-do attitude that endeared her to nearly everyone she encountered. As a kid, she swam and did gymnastics. Later, she attended a local technical college and became interested in the film industry during an internship on Army Wives. In her off time, she traveled.

“If she had a second off, she left the country, she had to see the world,” says one of her best friends, Amanda Etheridge. “She was unstoppable, always wanting to learn a new hobby, a new craft.” Bobby LaBonge, the director of photography for two seasons of Army Wives, says Jones had a disarming naivete. “You felt re-invigorated around her,” he says. “You saw the fresh wildness of making movies again, and you saw a sparkle in her that was fun.”

By her early 20s, Jones was making headway in an industry discipline overwhelmingly male, physically grueling and tough to sustain for very long: camerawork. LaBonge remembers her huffing with lots of gear, always smiling, never complaining. On the set, she was known as “The Ant” because of her ability to carry heavy objects that dwarfed her.

On March 2 in Jones’ hometown, nearly 900 people gathered in the Ashland United Methodist Church, where Jones spent many Sundays as a child. Her father sat down at the piano and began to play “Andy’s Song,” a tune about his own father he had composed and had played for Sarah only a few weeks before, when he found himself stranded in Atlanta by an epic snowstorm. It was the last time he saw her in person. The church filled with the sounds of weeping. As mourners began spilling out of the church, a common refrain was heard: “Never again.” Sarah, everyone agreed, would not die in vain.

Now, the global film industry is undergoing a widespread reckoning of what Jones’ death means. “This incident has rippled its devastation of people all the way to the top of our world,” says Brown. “We have a firm commitment that we will never forget. We will never let this happen again.”

The most high-profile case in which a director was criminally charged in an on-set death was the 1982 helicopter crash during the filming of Twilight Zone: The Movie that killed Vic Morrow and child actors Myca Dinh Le and Renee Chen. Director John Landis and his four co-defendants were found not guilty of involuntary manslaughter after a lengthy 1987 trial, but the deaths did lead to significant improvements in production safety protocols.

Meanwhile, filming of Midnight Rider, which was to be distributed in the U.S. by Open Road Films, has been suspended indefinitely.

“Sarah was a strong, powerful, beautiful woman,” says Gilliard, who now will commit herself to the promotion of safety and welfare on sets. Doctors have told her she will never straighten her arm again. She has metal pins in her elbow, and she says she wakes up several times each night crying, with one horrible final image of Jones burned into her consciousness.

After Richard Jones and his daughter talked by phone the night before the shoot, the two exchanged texts. She expressed her excitement about working with Hurt, and then she was out of range, and their exchange ended. A few minutes later, at 7:57 p.m., he sent her one final text: “Lost you.”

A production slate remembering Jones. (Photo credit: Brooke Brunson)

Scott Johnson, a former Newsweek correspondent, is the author of The Wolf and the Watchman, a CIA Childhood

Follow him @scott_c_johnson

 
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