Film crews' safety at issue

Mourners attend a candlelight vigil for camera assistant Sarah Jones on Sunset Boulevard in Hollywood this month. (Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times / March 7, 2014)

The film crew walked out on the old railroad trestle high above Georgia's Altamaha River, then placed a metal-frame bed on the tracks for actor William Hurt.

The plan called for Hurt to lie on the bed in a dream sequence for the film "Midnight Rider," in which he plays rock singer Gregg Allman. Two trains had already crossed the bridge that day, and the crew was told no more were scheduled, hairstylist Joyce Gilliard recalled.

Then a train came barreling toward them.

"We all ran for our lives," Gilliard said. "All I could think of was my family getting that call..."

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Crew members scrambled to get themselves and their gear to the side, but couldn't get the bed off the tracks. The locomotive smashed into it. Sarah Jones, a 27-year-old camera assistant, was killed, struck by metal shards from the bed and by the train itself, according to witnesses and a police report. Six other crew members on the bridge were injured.

Film and TV sets have always been dangerous places. Last year, three people died during a shoot for a Discovery Channel show when a helicopter crashed in Acton. In 2012, a diver died preparing an underwater scene for the Disney movie "The Lone Ranger."

But the Feb. 20 fatality in Georgia has triggered an extraordinary response, with Hollywood's "below-the-line" corps of working crew members seizing on Jones' death to rally for safer working conditions. In Hollywood, hundreds of workers joined in a candlelight vigil to remember Jones this month, and more than 55,000 people signed an online petition to add Jones' name to the Academy Awards' "In Memoriam" tribute. The academy agreed to show Jones' name and photo during the Oscar telecast.

"It hits home for a lot of us because we spend so many hours and 100% of our energy trying to get shots," said Michael Allowitz, a veteran first assistant director who worked with Jones on the TV show "The Vampire Diaries." "Everybody realizes it could have really been them put in this situation. We've all put ourselves in compromising positions to fulfill someone's vision."

Since the accident, workers have pressured their unions to step up efforts to ensure that other states have the same safety standards and training that is required in California, something they say is especially important on low-budget productions.

"We need to remind the crew that they have a voice and that if they see something that is unsafe they need to speak up without fear of losing their jobs," said Chris "C.C." Clark, a set lighting technician who also worked on "Vampire Diaries" and started a Sarah Jones Safety Committee with his Atlanta-based union, IATSE Local 479.

ON LOCATION: Where the cameras roll

What happened that day on the Georgia railroad trestle is under investigation by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, the National Transportation Safety Board, the Federal Railroad Administration and the Georgia Bureau of Investigation.

The film was being produced by Unclaimed Freight, an independent film company based in Pasadena and co-owned by Randall Miller and his wife, Jody Savin. Savin and Miller, who directed the film, declined to comment. The film's production was suspended after the accident.

Unclaimed Freight and its local production partner, Meddin Studios, had permission to film on property around the historic Doctortown Railroad Trestle in Wayne County, Ga., said Russell Schweiss, a spokesman for landowner Rayonier Inc.

But the film producers did not have permission to film on the railway trestle itself, which is owned by railroad company CSX, according to the Wayne County Sheriff's Office. A CSX spokeswoman declined to comment, citing the investigations.

Gilliard said she was preparing Hurt's hair in the minutes before the accident occurred. She said she and her colleagues were concerned that another train might be coming, but were told by production staff that no more were scheduled that day.

Hurt declined to comment, but he described what happened in an email to a friend. In that email, obtained by The Times, Hurt said he was twice assured that the bridge was safe for filming. He then asked "how long the crew had to get off if by some impossible chance another train came" and was told 60 seconds.

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"I said, 'Sixty seconds is not enough time to get us off this bridge.' There was a communal pause. No one backed me up. Then, we ..... Just went ahead. I took off my shoes, got on the heavy, metal hospital bed and began preparing," Hurt wrote. Then the train came. "We didn't have sixty seconds. We had less than thirty."