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Shortly before he fell 22 feet from a balcony onto a concrete floor in a TV-show stunt gone wrong, stuntman John Bernecker told a fellow Walking Dead actor that he had done “a few” high fall stunts before, but “never this high up,” according to a Coweta County, Georgia Sheriff’s report obtained by The Hollywood Reporter. The actor, Austin Amelio, who was the only other person on the balcony, also stated that Bernecker “seemed a little nervous,” according to the report, which was filed by deputy J.P. Traylor.
But two veteran stunt performer/coordinators told THR that 22 feet is in fact not a very high fall at all, with one suggesting that Bernecker may have been joking a bit at his coactor’s expense. Indeed, in a July 4 jet surfing video posted on his Facebook page, Bernecker confidently does an aerial move that appears about 15-20 feet in diameter.
In any event, the stunt went bad, and Bernecker missed the pads he was supposed to land on by “just inches,” second assistant director Matthew Goodwin told a sheriff’s deputy, leading to a 911 call that saw the stuntman medevaced to an Atlanta hospital about a half-hour later. Three hours after that, he was declared brain-dead, according to the Coweta County coroner, an official whose suburban jurisdiction encompasses the Raleigh Studios location where the AMC show was being shot.
According to the report, Goodwin told the sheriff’s deputy that Bernecker was supposed to perform a stunt fall at about 1:11 p.m. from a balcony over a railing approximately 22 feet in the air onto a pad made of a layer of 22-inch boxes, PORTaPIT pads and a large pad. Bernecker gave a thumbs-up to signal he was ready, and they began filming.
Bernecker got most of the way over, but did not appear to get good separation from the balcony. He appeared to attempt to abort the fall by grabbing onto the railing with both hands, but his momentum took him into the bottom of the balcony, causing him to release his hold, Goodwin is quoted in the report as saying. He fell inches away from the pad, the report says.
A set medic, who was standing by, rendered first aid within seconds. She requested that 911 be called immediately, and Goodwin did so, says the report. The first unit to arrive on the scene, Engine 10, arrived at 1:18 p.m., then Medic 10 at 1:28 p.m. and AirLife Helicopter at 1:41 p.m. The sheriff’s deputies arrived six minutes later. Bernecker was airlifted to Atlanta Medical Center by AirLife 4, but was declared brain-dead — legally dead — at 6:30 p.m. that day, the coroner told THR.
After speaking with witnesses, a sheriff’s deputy documented the scene, located “on the backside of the filming studio” and indicated that he wanted to speak to more witnesses the next day — they had been sent away, due to the accident — and see the film footage that was shot.
Separately, the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration opened an investigation into the accident, an OSHA spokesman said. A SAG-AFTRA representative has previously said the union is investigating the incident as well. U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics figures show arts, entertainment and recreation as the 12th most dangerous industry in Georgia, with 5.3 nonfatal injuries and illnesses for every 100 workers in 2015, the most recent available. The rate in California was 4.6 per hundred.
July 14, 7:34 p.m. Updated with new information from stunt veterans, and corrected U.S. BLS statistics (nonfatal, not fatal).
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