Federal investigation details safety lapses on “Midnight Rider” set

Two weeks after the criminal cases stemming from the February 2014 train wreck on a Jesup film set that killed crew member Sarah Jones were resolved, federal investigators have released a lengthy report into the matter.

In short, trespassing is to blame, the National Transportation Safety Board report concludes.

Sarah Jones

Earlier this month, just as the trial was about to get underway, “Midnight Rider” director Randall Miller reached a plea deal that avoided trial and absolved his wife and business partner, Jody Savin.

In pleading guilty to involuntary manslaughter and criminal trespassing, Miller received a sentence of two yeas in jail and eight on probation, in addition to a $20,000 fine.

The day after Miller’s plea agreement was announced, Wayne County District Attorney Jackie Johnson announced another guilty plea in the case: first assistant director Hillary Schwartz was found guilty after a bench trial before Superior Court Judge Anthony Harrison, and was sentenced to 10 years probation, and ordered to pay a $5,000 fine.

Executive producer Jay Sedrish also pleaded guilty and got 10 years on probation.

The NTSB details the lapses in procedure that led up to the fatality. About a month before the train wreck, a location manager sought permission from CSX, which owns the train tracks, to film there. CSX denied the request, saying in response: “In accordance with our company protocol, CSX does not permit filming on our property. This is based on concern for the safety of those accessing and working on our railroad, security considerations, and our commitment to ensuring on-schedule train operations for the customers we serve.”

The scene of the train wreck was included in the NTSB report.

The scene of the train wreck was included in the NTSB report.

But the “Midnight Rider” team continued scouting the property anyway, and sent another request to CSX. Again, the request was denied: “Unfortunately, CSX will not be able to support your request.”

This caused a dispute within members of the film crew: “In an interview, the location manager stated that he informed the producer, the director, the writer, and the first-assistant director about CSX’s denial of permission for filming on the railroad property. Furthermore, the location manager said that the director insisted that filming would proceed despite CSX’s denial of permission. As a result, the location manager refused to participate in the film shoot; although he could not prohibit the film crew from working.”

Regardless, filming commenced.

“When the film crew began working at the CSX bridge, two assistants with two-way radios walked to the highway-rail crossing south of the railroad bridge—they were ready to prohibit members of the public from entering the film site. Then, the crew began filming, initially in an area adjacent to the railroad right-of-way and, subsequently, on the CSX bridge. The movie scene on the bridge involved an actor lying in a bed positioned across the railroad tracks.

While filming on the bridge, the film crew heard an announcement saying “Train!” over the two-way radio. Some crewmembers ran off the bridge, while others took shelter on the bridge walkway.”

As a result of the collision, Jones, 27, died and several of her fellow crew members were injured.

The fatal collision took place on this CSX train trestle.

The fatal collision took place on this CSX train trestle.

The NTSB report clearly blamed those in charge of the production: “Railroad property is private property. The film crew leadership had enough awareness about railroads to ask for CSX’s permission to film. In NTSB interviews, some of the film crew leadership stated that they thought others were handling the permission to be on CSX property; while others believed it was safe to film. This assumption was reckless, and it endangered the entire film crew.

“The National Transportation Safety Board determines that the probable cause of the accident was the film crew’s unauthorized entry onto the CSX Transportation right-of-way at the Altamaha River bridge with personnel and equipment, despite CSX Transportation’s repeated denial of permission to access the railroad property.”

wreckage