Tragedy on the Set: Remembering Sarah Jones

Posted by Shaun O'Banion
Richard "RB" Botto Richard "RB" Botto
Last night at Oscar's, the Academy paid tribute to Sarah Jones, the camera assistant who was struck by a train and killed during pre-production of the Greg Allman biopic, MIDNIGHT RIDER.
In today's guest post, Stage 32 member and award winning producer, Shaun O'Banion, gives his take on the tragedy.
I thank him for his contribution.

If you've been following the news lately, you've likely heard about Sarah Jones, a 2nd AC who was struck and killed by a train while working on the new Allman Brothers biopic, MIDNIGHT RIDER.

Over the past few days, more and more information has been coming to light, and I wanted to weigh in as a producer...

I should mention that there is little concrete information out of Georgia at this point, but this is what is known: "The crew, including director Randall Miller, had been warned to expect two trains on the local bridge, one in each direction, and waited until after those two trains had passed to set up their shot, which involved placing a bed on the tracks. The railroad had also told the production that if any additional trains came, they’d hear a whistle about a minute before the train would reach the bridge.


Sarah Jones

A third train did arrive unexpectedly, blowing its whistle while the crew was on the bridge and the bed was on the track. Crew members ran toward their base camp, which was on land at one end of the bridge, using a plank walkway on the side of the trestle bridge. However in doing so they ran toward the bed. That proved disastrous.

Miller, who also directed the 2008 film “Bottle Shock,” and a still photographer rushed to get the bed off the tracks. Miller fell onto the tracks but the still photographer pulled him off, according to the witness, saving his life. The train was unable to stop and crossed the bridge while the crew was still on the walkway and the bed was still on the tracks.

The bed was hit by the train and shattered, sending debris flying. One large piece of debris hit Jones as she was running and knocked her onto the tracks. She was then struck by the train and killed. Debris also hit and injured several other people, including one who was seriously injured and airlifted to Savannah’s Memorial Health University Medical Center." – Source: Variety.

Sarah Jones

I have produced three feature films at this point in my career, but this is my 20th year in the industry, and what I can tell you without a shadow of a doubt, is that there are several people who should be held criminally liable for the tragic death of Sarah Jones if, in fact, the information we currently have proves true.

One of the first jobs I ever had on a feature film, was as a set P.A. on Katherine Bigelow's film STRANGE DAYS. In the film, there is a sequence in which a woman flees a murder scene and runs across a series of train tracks as she's chased by a pair of dirty cops (played by Vincent D'Onofrio and William Fichtner).

My job for that night, was to be driven in a van more than three and a half miles down the track in City of Industry, where I would wait trackside with a military style repeater walkie. My ONLY job that night was to announce over the radio if I saw a train coming at me, at which point the First AD. Steve Danton would clear the track.

In truth, my job that night was redundant - a rep from Southern Pacific was already with the AD's on set and monitoring their own walkie channels in case any unscheduled trains may have made their way toward "the set." 

In my roughly 14 hours in my lock-up, there were (maybe) two trains. Both were scheduled, and in both cases the AD's were given advance warning by the rep for Southern Pacific and by me. Nobody was hurt.

This crew had ABSOLUTELY NO REASON to be on that track. Plain and simple. They should NEVER have been there. And now a bright, beautiful young woman is dead.

On a recent project, I had the distinct pleasure of watching our First A.D. make a judgement call which took to mind the SAFETY of the crew BEFORE any other obligation to the story or filmmaker, and that's EXACTLY as it should be.

When the below the line crew show up for work each day, it is their belief that the grown-ups on the set (Above the line crew), and the 1st A.D., other A.D.'s and location reps have done their diligence and have assured the safety of the unit. It should never be the concern of the rank and file crew to ask for the permit or to inquire as to their own safety. That safety is implicit, and simply by their showing up at call, there should be NO REASON to question the preparedness of the production.

Regardless, of anything, Sarah Jones died because the Producers, locations people and A.D.'s failed her. And that fact is sickening.

If you are a producer or an A.D., let the senseless death of this woman with such a bright future be your wake-up call. There is no such thing as "cinematic immunity." YOU are responsible for the safety of your crew.

Sarah Jones was let down by her producers, locations reps and A.D.'s, and for that... for trusting and not questioning (as most crew often do and SHOULD BE ABLE TO), she lost her life.

As a producer, I will always and ONLY work with A.D.'s who place the safety of the cast and crew at the top of their list - A.D.'s like Scott Kirkley, Seth Edelstein, Carey Dietrich and their teams. A.D.'s who will stand their ground and say "no," when it matters. To me, they'll only need to say it once.

RIP, Sarah. May your death prevent others dying in the future.

About Shaun O’Banion

Shaun began his career on Spielberg’s production of SEAQUEST DSV then segued into feature films (including two with Spielberg himself.) He has worked with some of the industry’s most well-known and well-respected talent in front of and behind the camera including Academy Award winner Christopher Walken, Ben Stiller, Coutney Cox, David Arquette, Ben Stiller and acclaimed directors Joe Wright, Judd Apatow and Academy Award nominee Peter Hedges. Shaun has won numerous awards for his work and is a member of the Producers Guild of America.

Shaun will be hosting our Next Level Webinar - Post-Production: Finding your Film tomorrow, March 4 at 1pm PST. Joining him will be award-winning Editor Jeff Castelluccio. To sign up for the webinar click here

Shaun welcomes remarks and questions in the comments section.



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As the largest filmmaking community on the planet, let's do the right thing and get the word out to everyone about Sarah Jones...


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