Saturday, February 22, 2014

The Debt Has Been Paid





Many of you may have seen this story, but if you haven't, you need to.

For those who don't know the details of this story, a film called Midnight Rider was shooting a Gregg Allman biopic on a train track in Georgia, and a young second camera assistant was killed, and others injured. 

Below is part of the story from a Variety article:



A second camera assistant was killed Thursday afternoon when a freight train struck and killed her on the set of the Gregg Allman biopic “Midnight Rider,” sources confirm to Variety.

Four other people were injured in the accident, one seriously. The event happened in Wayne County, Ga.

An eyewitness told Variety the movie crew was filming a dream sequence on a railroad trestle when a train unexpectedly crossed the bridge.

The crew, including director Randall Miller, had placed a bed on the tracks for the scene and was expecting two trains on the local bridge, one in each direction, when a third train arrived unexpectedly.

A whistle warned the crew members of the next train, giving them less than a minute, which was too late.


Subsequent articles have contradictory stories about whether the railroad had given its permission and was working with the company, or if just the private company who owned the land the tracks ran through had given their permission.

These are among the questions that clearly need to be answered, but as a producer and an AD, there are some specific questions that concern me.

Assuming there was a production meeting that went through each day's shooting with all of the keys, did no one ask if it was an active track? That answer was clearly yes, and the production company knew it, because they anticipated the two trains that came before the one that killed the young camera assistant.

Once that answer was yes, what was the question about why they were building a set - it seems it was a bed and some props from a dream sequence - on an active track.

One of the most disturbing things to me was a note in one of the articles that they were told that IF a third train came, it would give a warning whistle when it was about a minute away. Excuse me, IF and ONE MINUTE? What was the plan to clear the track of a set in one minute, not to mention camera and any other supporting gear?

Remember, this was a union crew with a director shooting his second feature, not a bunch of film students.  Was there any sort of safety meeting?

As a second AC, I doubt Sarah would have been at that meeting. The point, as one Facebook poster mentioned, was that other people should have had her back, should have asked those questions. The producers are responsible, and I would certainly like to hear from the UPM, AD, and location manager, all of whom should have addressed these basic questions.

There should have been numerous fail-safes before it ever got this far. Clearly, those all were blown.

An old college friend who publishes books on railroads and their history, and historic lines, adds the following:

"I've been acquiring some level of knowledge about railroading through my publishing work, and I do not believe for one second they had permission from CSX. Jesup is such an active line that in town they have built a platform for people who like to watch freight trains go by. Also, I believe there are now phone apps for monitoring the Advanced Train Control System which displays train traffic. It's what railroads use to monitor their traffic and what railfans use to know when and where the next train is. There is just no excuse for this sad incident."

The above was from his Facebook post to me.

The tragedy is that so many opportunities to prevent this were missed. I'm glad the union posted the picture of Sarah above. Looking at her, does it not look like a typical crew photo from any of your shoots? Could she not be any one of your crew friends? Could she not be you?

There are times, as line producer and AD, when I have pulled the plug on stupid ideas. There are other times when I may not have seen a risk and someone else pointed it out. 

Before we get too high-and-mighty - Let's be honest: we've all pushed the envelope at times. Making movies can be dangerous - big, heavy equipment, electricity, stunts, effects, etc. We sometimes take chances, but hopefully, when we do, we have calculated the risks and have done what we could to reduce those risks, even if it does not get down to zero.

It sounds corny, but we are a team. A member of Sarah's union posted this (part of a longer post)

"Sarah,
I didn’t know you but learned today that you were a “sister” of mine, a 2nd AC in Local 600, that you were working on a film set yesterday and that now you are no longer with us as a result. I am so sorry that your young life was cut short for something as trivial as moviemaking and so sorry that no one spoke up to say “this isn’t safe” before a train came down the tracks you were shooting on killing you and injuring seven others. I don’t really know much about the situation or what actually happened, but I am sure that you were doing your job, performing your functions professionally, secure in the knowledge that since others were doing it, things must be safe. I don’t know if you were concerned, if there was a safety meeting, if you asked and someone said, “yeah it’ll be fine” or, if like so often happens, you were moving so fast to help your team get “the shot” that you didn’t take the time to consider what was being asked of you. I don’t know a lot of things.

But I do know this Sarah. No one had your back. If they did, you’d still be here today. The Director should have said no. The AD should have said no. The DP should have said no. Production should have said no. Your operator should have said no. I don’t know if any of these things happened, but I do know that you were out on those tracks and that means someone didn’t step up enough. You were doing what was asked of you and for that reason, you are gone.

And I am so sorry because a 2nd AC shouldn’t be the one to make the call that something is unsafe. A 2nd AC, or anyone for that matter, should not have been out on those tracks. A 2nd AC should not have died yesterday. No one should have...."
"Sarah,
I didn’t know you but learned today that you were a “sister” of mine, a 2nd AC in Local 600, that you were working on a film set yesterday and that now you are no longer with us as a result. I am so sorry that your young life was cut short for something as trivial as moviemaking and so sorry that no one spoke up to say “this isn’t safe” before a train came down the tracks you were shooting on killing you and injuring seven others. I don’t really know much about the situation or what actually happened, but I am sure that you were doing your job, performing your functions professionally, secure in the knowledge that since others were doing it, things must be safe. I don’t know if you were concerned, if there was a safety meeting, if you asked and someone said, “yeah it’ll be fine” or, if like so often happens, you were moving so fast to help your team get “the shot” that you didn’t take the time to consider what was being asked of you. I don’t know a lot of things.

But I do know this Sarah. No one had your back. If they did, you’d still be here today. The Director should have said no. The AD should have said no. The DP should have said no. Production should have said no. Your operator should have said no. I don’t know if any of these things happened, but I do know that you were out on those tracks and that means someone didn’t step up enough. You were doing what was asked of you and for that reason, you are gone.

And I am so sorry because a 2nd AC shouldn’t be the one to make the call that something is unsafe. A 2nd AC, or anyone for that matter, should not have been out on those tracks. A 2nd AC should not have died yesterday. No one should have...."


We get caught up in the moment, which is why we need to look out for each other. As this poster says, Sarah was probably focused on what she always was likely focused on - doing her job - and trusted that others had answered any of those safety questions.

Line producing my last feature there was something we wanted the sound recordist to do that he was not comfortable with - not necessarily dangerous, but not by standard procedure. He was a replacement and had not been there when it was discussed.I was in the office, and someone asked me to talk with him - which I did.

I started by asking him to explain the situation to me as he saw it. I addressed a few of his concerns, but our conversation ended - as it always does - with this: I am not going to ask you to do something that you are not comfortable doing.  In the end, we shot the scene without sound. There was no argument.

That's how the system should work.

I surely don't have all the answers here, but you don't need to be an investigator to see how many safety issues needed to be ignored for this tragedy to happen.

This has popped up on a few of the blogs I read already, and likely, will pop-up on more. Here is a wonderful tribute from a great crew site, dollygrippery.net.

I'm glad that IA posted Sarah's picture - a set photo - because, again, we all need to look at it, to see that smiling face or someone who is gone, and not just throw around words like "accident," as if it is a thing. 

It is not. It's a person. It's Sarah. It's the crew people you love.

I am tired of talking about "silver linings" and "if this prevents just one more..." We should have prevented already. Sarah didn't need to pay for other people's safety. Sarah didn't go to work that day to be a martyr for set safety.

It was Day One of the shoot. She likely showed up full of enthusiasm for doing her job, wondering what new crew members would be like, who this old guy Gregg Allman might be and would he be on set, what would the catering be like, and, like all of us, with our fingers crossed that we don't screw up.

She should never in her worst nightmares have had to think about getting hit by a train.

I am tired of wishing people rest in peace, though Sarah certainly deserves that. I am tired of reminding the rest of us that our mortal stage is just that - a stage - and that those we love do live on in especially in our hearts - though I truly believe it.

The more I write this, the more I alternate between sadness and anger, though I know neither does much good, and I'm sure that those that missed the opportunity to prevent this are feeling deep pain, a pain that I doubt will ever go away.

The Twilight Zone movie. Jason Lee. Brent Hershman. John Hunt Lamensdorf.*All the other crew and cast members killed whose names you don't know, and the countless others who were not killed but sustained serious injuries that could have been prevented.

 We use terms like "war stories" the way sports announcers use words like "hero" for athletes when there are so many other heroes out there who put their lives on the line for others. What we do should not be war. It should not come with sacrifices, Movies are entertainment, not a noble cause to give life or limb for.

We have enough names. We have enough faces. With Sarah, let's just say: Enough.


EDIT: Subsequent stories have confirmed what I already knew - that the production comoany did not have the permission of the RR company.

EDIT 2: There has been much deserved outrage from the crew community, as well as some beautiful tributes, including the one linked in this post from dollygrippery.net which everyone needs to read.
Here, I link an article by a wonderful First AD in her blog "It's a 1st AD thing...", where Michelle, as usual, tells it like it is from an AD perspective. I shared one of my own bad incidents from my AD days in the post above.

If you've been a first AD, you have been in the situation Michelle describes.

EDIT 3: I have tried not to keep putting up new posts, but putting updates here. A genuine outpouring of love has resulted in a movement/FB page - Slates for Sarah. Spontaneously at first, and then in reaction to the FB page, thousands of industry folks from small indies to "Glee" and other episodic shows have shown love for Sarah in messages on their slates and posted them on that Facebook page.

From that page, the idea of having Sarah Jones' name added to the In Memorium section of the Oscars this Sunday has arisen. If interested, email slatesforsarah@gmail.com or visit slatesforsarah.org or sign at this site here.



* I know someone who was involved in Lamensdorf's death, and sadly, he has learned little.

N.B. - The Facebook comments above were posted on a very public social media, so I assume the posters wanted them seen by others. I did not reach out to them for permission - but also did not share their names.

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