Based on an exclusive eyewitness account and interviews with the parents of Sarah Jones, a 27-year-old camera assistant who tragically lost her life on the set of Midnight Rider in Doctortown, Ga., The Hollywood Reporter has now revealed new harrowing details of what happened when a crew of 20 people were filming a scene on a live train track. However, many details of the accident remain unknown and murky, causing attendees at the Oscars to wear black lapels in memory of Sarah and sparking an industrywide reckoning on safety standards in Hollywood. The incident has spread anger and grief throughout the industry.
She said during a series of interviews, “As soon as I arrived at the location, a trestle bridge over the Altamaha River in Wayne County, I started to feel safe. It was a wild and untamed land, full of gnats, Spanish moss, and rivers. At that moment, I began to feel anxious about shooting the indie biopic Midnight Rider, which features William Hurt as the 1970s rocker Gregg Allman. I am working as a hairstylist on the film, and I am 42 years old.”
Jones’ parents’ exclusive interview can be accessed by clicking here. On her first day on set, as relayed by her father, she expressed apprehension about a few matters during a phone conversation the night before her passing. Specifically, she remarked on the peculiar situation of certain individuals posing questions despite their supposed expertise. According to her father, she was taken aback by the fact that the production had a limited budget. It appears that Jones did not disclose any worries to her colleagues, who were already aware of her tireless work ethic and cheerful demeanor, well-established within the local production community.
She darted in and out of the cameras, retreating behind the shots, where Jones traded small talk. She was responsible for picking up the wind as the actor’s hair, while nervously watching Gilliard rehearsing his lines. Hurt paced barefoot.
Gilliard expresses that maintaining stability was challenging due to the blustery wind that reverberated through the girders. Additionally, certain sections of the trestle’s wooden and metallic base had noticeable gaps and were scattered with pebbles. As the day progressed, director Randall Miller decided to relocate the shoot from the land adjacent to the river onto the narrow framework of the trestle, which stretches over the edge of the Altamaha.
“Lord, we implore you to safeguard us on these railway lines,” whispered Gilliard. “Envelop us with your heavenly beings and provide us assistance, Lord.” At this point, she and two additional members of the crew were anxious to the point that they huddled together in an unstructured prayer gathering before commencing filming. “Every crew member was greatly concerned about that,” recalls Gilliard. “Just a minute? Are you truly serious?” From the shoreline, situated several dozen yards away, a voice called out to the crew, informing them that if a train were to approach, they would only have 60 seconds to evacuate the tracks.
It was hurtling toward them – it was a train, and Gilliard looked up and saw a light in the distance. Then, they had placed a twin-sized metal-framed bed and mattress in the middle of the tracks, and the film crew was filming a dream sequence. Jones didn’t really fret much about typing the books and had a fresh-faced passion for traveling in South Carolinian. While Gilliard prayed, Jones helped transport gear and load film onto the cameras.
“Let it go!” Shouted Gilliard and the rest. “Let it go!” Hollered Jones, carrying multiple bags on each shoulder, discussing what to do with the valuable camera gear. According to Gilliard, Miller instructed everyone to flee. The train, almost as broad as the bridge, resounded with the deafening noise of a blaring horn and perhaps the screeching of brakes, towering two levels high.
Gilliard said they gave up their attempts as the train neared. They were worried that it could lead to a train accident, so Miller and another crew member started pulling at the bed, attempting to get it off the path of the train. Gilliard tried to make her way onto the metal gangplank that ran alongside the tracks. According to one estimate, the train was now traveling at nearly 60 mph, and the only possible way to escape to the nearest shore was to run towards the oncoming train.
She declares, “I was certain that I was going to perish.” “I witnessed my existence, my children, my family, all of it before me,” she declares. Gilliard threw herself onto two metal cables that extended between the beams and along the walkway, thrust her head out over the river below, and closed her eyes. With the train roaring past just inches behind her, Gilliard seized a sheet that had become detached from the mattress and enveloped her bleeding arm with it. And then she observed blood. Gilliard glanced downward and witnessed bone protruding from her sweater. With one hand still gripping the beam, Gilliard broke like a twig. It broke like a twig. However, the blast of pressure and wind from the train’s passage forcefully tore Gilliard’s left arm away from her body and directly into the train. She found herself clinging to one of the beams. Before Gilliard realized it, the train was upon her.
Shortly after, a chopper landed and a team of paramedics arrived within 20 minutes. The crew shocked assisted in gathering Jones’ corpse. Hurt also emerged unharmed. Struggling to cope with the catastrophe, Gilliard claims he was weeping. Just in the nick of time, a nearby still photographer managed to extract him. Miller also tumbled onto the tracks in the chaos. Potentially propelling her into the path of the train, something might have struck Jones. Debris soared as the train collided with the bed and mattress. On the gangway, Jones had attempted to seek refuge, much like Gilliard. Her body and face were mutilated, a lifeless Jones. When she reopened her eyes, one of the initial sights that greeted her was.
Federal officials, who quickly descended upon the marshy countryside, were inquiring about the intricate terminology found in film contracts, permissions, permits, and easements. Consequently, a police investigation was initiated. Additionally, five other crewmembers necessitated medical attention. Gilliard, with a compound fracture in her arm and other injuries, was swiftly airlifted to a Savannah hospital for treatment within an hour of the incident.
Authorities in Georgia are treating the death of Jones as a negligent homicide, following an investigation that has been expanded to include multiple investigations by the Georgia Bureau of Investigation and the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration.
In the days following the disaster, it was shockingly revealed that safety protocols had been lax and there were no recriminations. It is still unclear whether production had permission to film on the tracks and whether any precautions were taken on the day of the set. The exact details of what precautions were or were not taken are still being sorted out.
I can’t imagine a safety protocol that is more organized and comprehensive than the one in place for the rail system. Whenever I work on trains, there are always radios, glasses, and hard hats for the personnel. The production of trains is always smaller, suggesting that incidents like this could have been avoided. Ray Brown, the president of the local union Mechanics Studio Picture Motion in Atlanta, states that this was not an accident.
Carry out the inquiries until responsibility is assigned by the parents of Jones. Following the occurrence, a disturbed Miller contacted them to convey his sympathies. Richard Jones states, “I am not entirely aware of Randy Miller’s involvement in this matter, but he was extremely distressed on that day. He kept apologizing.” The Joneses have not received any communication from high-ranking executives affiliated with the movie ever since.
Just before the Academy acknowledged her in a photo and caption on the screen, a commercial aired. In response to an online petition signed by over 60,000 individuals by Sunday night, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences included Jones in its “In Memoriam” video segment. When he discovered the hacker’s comments, his account was hacked and he promptly deleted them, as executive producer Nick Gant, who was attacked on Facebook for allegedly posting insensitive remarks, is informing his friends. The filmmaking team has been threatened with death. The death of their daughter sparked a tidal wave of grief and anger from all over the world.
The tragic incident involving Jones will forever be closely associated with the desolate stretch of railroad in Georgia for Gilliard and the rest of the crew present on that fateful day.
The crew arrived at the massive metal trestle that spans a portion of the Altamaha River around two o’clock in the morning. As they passed through the railroad tracks and fields, they noticed that the surroundings were calm and undisturbed. The crew had gathered at a studio in Savannah earlier that morning, where they were informed that they would be traveling to this location for a “camera test” shoot. Gilliard recalls that from the very beginning of the day, everything felt peculiar and out of the ordinary.
CSX, the Office of Sheriff’s County Wayne, informed the producers of Rider’s Midnight that they had never granted permission to film on the tracks in the early hours of the investigation.
Sgt. Ben Robertson stated in a report acquired by the media that the CSX employee mentioned that the production company had previously been refused authorization to film on the trestle, and there was digital communication to authenticate that information. When questioned about whether permission was given, a member of Miller’s crew replied, “It’s intricate,” as documented in Robertson’s report.
Response: Savannah Dixon, a defense attorney engaged by Miller, noted that the New York-based public relations firm declined to provide specific information about the safety precautions for the film, including the roles of other senior managers, the first assistant director, the location manager, and the producer. Additionally, Dixon mentioned that you do not have permission or the authority to comment on these matters, and it is not a straightforward situation. Furthermore, she pointed out that Lee Donaldson, a friend of Jones and a local union official in Georgia, is involved.
Bring asks why they were there in the first place. Bring also questions if precautions and procedures, both legally and logically, were taken if they did not have permission to be on the tracks. Gilliard states that she did not see any officials like that. “In every train, airplane, airport, and shoot that I have ever been a part of, there has always been a coordinator that you hire to organize everything, to communicate with the crew, and to any train operators or linemen,” says Harry Bring, a producer of one of the initial television shows that Jones worked on, Lifetime’s Army Wives. Several Hollywood producers are questioning whether there were any shortcuts or oversights in the production.
The official union in Atlanta, known as Brown, has stated that all cast and crew members should have been provided with detailed safety notes and call sheets. Additionally, in order to ensure safety on set, railway personnel have been assigned to monitor the set. It has been proven that these safety measures were implemented and evidence of their existence has emerged.
Gilliard remembers that during the shoot for Hurt, there was no safety meeting. She says there was no medic either. When Hurt needed a Band-Aid for a small cut, Gilliard recalls that he had to ask a costume designer for one, who happened to have it in her bag. However, producers usually say that a location shoot like this would have had a medic present.
“I don’t think it’s safe to have a little kid running with cows. Another scene in the CBGB movie 2013 features a piano being dropped down another staircase, and it also includes a small child roaming in a field of cows. The crewmembers of the movie bragged about their ‘guerrilla’ filmmaking style, which allowed them to include such risky scenes. The local news station released a DVD made by Miller’s production company, Freight, Unclaimed.
She became interested in the film industry while she was in college, and she attended a local technical college. As a kid, she did gymnastics and swam. Now living in Atlanta, Jones is a native of Columbia, S.C. She has a can-do attitude and a knack for following instructions, which endeared her to almost everyone she encountered. Gilliard was happy to see a younger woman, and she had worked with Gilliard before. When Miller directed everyone to move out onto the set, Gilliard, who had never learned to swim and was afraid of heights, tightened her stomach and held on to the railing. The warm weather and camaraderie on set were a pleasure. When others asked if there were more trains, she definitively answered, “No.” Two trains had passed without incident. Gilliard felt a little more relaxed as the initial filming got underway.
Amanda Etheridge, one of her best friends, says, “If she had left the country, she would have had a second chance to see the world.” She was always determined to learn a new hobby, always unstoppable in her desire to learn a new craft. Bobby LaBonge, the director of photography for two seasons of Wives Army, says that Jones had a disarming innocence. “You saw a sparkle in her that was fun and once again, you saw the fresh excitement of making movies. You felt re-energized being around her.”
Jones made significant progress in the male-dominated and physically demanding field of camerawork in her early 20s. LaBonge recalls her always smiling and never complaining, as she tirelessly huffed around with lots of gear. She was nicknamed “The Ant” due to her impressive ability to carry heavy objects on set.
Everyone agreed that Sarah would never vainly refrain from “hearing” a common refrain in church, as mourners began spilling out of the church, filled with the sounds of weeping. It was the last time he saw her in person. Only a few weeks before, when he found himself stranded in an epic snowstorm in Atlanta, he had played and composed his own tune about his father, titled “Andy’s Song,” and he began to play it on the piano as he sat down next to his father. As a child, Sarah had spent many Sundays in the United Methodist Church in Ashland, where nearly 900 people gathered in March, which was her hometown church, Jones’.
We will never let this happen again. We will never forget. We have a strong commitment. According to Brown, “this incident has caused devastation to all people around the world, reaching the top of our world.” The global film industry is currently experiencing a widespread reckoning of what Jones’ death signifies.
Improvements in safety measures during production resulted in a substantial loss of lives. However, despite these fatalities, the accused defendants and their four co-defendants were acquitted of any charges of unintentional manslaughter in a prolonged trial that took place in 1987. Nevertheless, the renowned director John Landis, along with child actors Myca Dinh Le and Renee Chen, tragically lost their lives in a helicopter accident during the filming of Twilight Zone: The Movie in 1982. This incident, where a director faced criminal charges for an on-set death, marked the most prominent case in this regard.
Meanwhile, production of Midnight Rider, which was intended to be distributed in the U.S. By Open Road Films, has been halted indefinitely.
Gilliard asserts that Sarah, a resilient, influential, and attractive individual, is now dedicated to advocating for the safety and well-being of film sets. According to medical professionals, her arm will never regain its straightness. Sarah has undergone a surgical procedure involving the insertion of metal pins in her elbow, and she experiences bouts of crying multiple times throughout the night. She claims that her mind is haunted by a distressing last memory of Jones.