Not since the tragic deaths of Vic Morrow and two child actors during the making of "The Twilight Zone: The Movie" 32 years ago has the world's production community been so shaken and outraged by an on-set fatality as the one two weeks ago that claimed the life of a 27-year-old camera assistant.
The death of Sarah Jones, who was crushed by a train while filming on an active railroad track for the independent film "Midnight Rider," has galvanized the industry and raised blistering questions and concerns about an apparent paucity of safety precautions in place to protect the lives of those who work on movies and television shoots around the globe.
Sarah Jones: She Tried to Save the Gear
Underscoring that unsettling notion, investigators in Georgia, where Jones was killed, have released a key detail: That railroad company CSX did not give the production permission to be on the tracks. The Wayne County Sheriff's Office is investigating the accident as a homicide.
As attorneys and their clients gear up for the inevitable onslaught of litigation, authorities are combing through the details of exactly what happened on Feb. 20 in Doctortown, Ga., attempting to establish who ordered crew and cast members -- including the film's stars William Hurt and Wyatt Russell, who play rocker Gregg Allman and his younger brother Duane -- to go out on the trestle to shoot a dream sequence on a metal bed that was placed on the train tracks.
The incident that killed Jones occurred despite past efforts to institute stricter safety protocols in Hollywood following the "Twilight Zone" helicopter crash. While safety rules were bolstered, there has been a steady drumbeat of on-set deaths since then. Data from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration shows 10 such fatalities in the U.S. from 2003 to 2012, but the org doesn't necessarily record all accidents. There are yet more deaths outside the U.S., including widely reported fatalities on the set of "The Dark Knight Rises" and "The Expendables 2."
Few even attract much attention anymore. But as the death of Jones spotlights, there are gaping holes in the industry's current safety plans.
John Sheeren, a Texas-based d.p. and camera operator who himself survived a near-miss on a train trestle during a commercial shoot in the 1980s, says techs are furious. "You can probably ask any film production technician who's been on the job 10 years, and they can probably give you half a dozen incidences where they should have been killed or injured, and just by the grace of God they weren't," he says.
But many crew members have been -- and still are -- afraid to speak up about safety concerns, for fear of not getting that next job.
Mark August, VP of the Society of Camera Operators, agrees that many young crew members don't feel they can question things. "They look to leadership for safety," August says. "There is the assumption that your boss is taking every precaution, and that when you are employed, you are safe. The reality is, if it isn't safe, (you have to feel free to) speak up."
Jones' brother Eric says such concerns were on Sarah's mind when he met with her two days before the accident.
"She had never worked on a low-budget film before, and she told me she was a little sketched-out by it," Jones says. "But she got over that when she talked about meeting Gregg Allman and William Hurt."
The groundswell of shock and anguish over Jones' death is particularly understandable considering the lack of response and stonewalling from many of the major companies and organizations contacted by Variety to discuss on-set safety. Not one of Hollywood's six major studios responded to requests for comment for this story. Variety's calls to the nonprofit Contract Services Administration Trust Fund, which runs the motion picture and TV industry's Safety Passport program, were not returned. And, through his publicist, the film's director, Randall Miller, who was on set that fateful day and whose company is producing "Midnight Rider" (production on which has been suspended indefinitely), has declined multiple interview requests by this publication.
Among workers, the Jones tragedy has struck a profound chord, drawing intense reactions from those who might have otherwise remained silent in the past. Their common refrain has gone viral on Twitter and Facebook and can be seen on T-shirts, umbrellas and mock location signs on the streets of Atlanta, Los Angeles and other cities across the globe: "We Are All Sarah Jones."
As a second assistant camera tech, Jones was the bottom-ranking member in her department, but Sheeren says even experienced pros identify with her plight. "Everybody started in the lowest position in their classification at one point or another, and everybody knows how powerless that position is," he says.
August says he's encouraged to see more social-media chatter about safety, including instances of crew members taking to the Internet to air their concerns, since the "Midnight Rider" accident. He reports a director on one of his shoots calling a meeting to announce that his production had permits, invite questions and urge anyone who felt unsafe to speak up.
"That's something you've never heard coming from directors or producers," August tells Variety.
Such changes are rippling through other current productions. In Georgia, where Jones was a familiar and well-liked set worker on the CW series "The Vampire Diaries," the crews of that show and "The Originals" are holding daily safety meetings, a practice that had been abandoned on many sets.
Eric Henson, who works on the crew of "Vampire Diaries," says the "We Are All Sarah Jones" sentiment is one of the most important results of the tragedy.