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"Midnight Rider" crew had discussed train safety, colleague recalls

Sarah Elizabeth Jones
S.C Film Council

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The Savannah-based film crew Sarah Elizabeth Jones had been working on when she was struck and killed by a train last week had not been on site long, and had discussed safety, a member of the crew said.

"It was explained that trains come by," camera assistant Tony Summerlin said during an interview with the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. "A couple did come by. It was explained there could be more."

He was working as first camera assistant and Jones was working as second camera assistant on "Midnight Rider," a movie about Gregg Allman. They worked closely together and he may have been the last person to see Jones alive.

"It's kind of rough to think about," he said. "It went down right in front of me. I have these random images I can't really put aside. It still doesn't seem real."

Jones, 27, a South Carolina native who had been living in Atlanta, died Thursday afternoon after the fatal train accident in the tiny community of Doctortown, just outside Jesup. Like many of her colleagues in the industry Summerlin was impressed with Jones both personally and professionally.

"She was an awesome person," he said. "She was very organized. She was really great. (Filmmaking) is a unique line of work. You become closer than family being in the film business. You put in 15, 16 hours a day."

The crew was working on a "dream sequence" involving a hospital bed when the accident occurred. The crew had held a safety meeting before work began, Summerlin said. It was soon clear how forceful the trains could be.

"When the first train passed it was like, wow, that's some insane force," he said. "I stepped off and it just flew by me. You feel it in your chest."

The first train came by around 3:20 p.m., the second one about 15 minutes later, he recalled. The third train, the one that struck Jones, came through about 20 minutes after that, he recalled.

"It was going full speed. It seemed like it took half a mile to stop," he said. "We were running. She said, 'I can't carry all this stuff.' I said, 'Throw it. Throw it down.'"

Tragically, she was not able to get out of the way in time.

"She and I were face to face up to the last second," said Summerlin, who said he planned to speak with a grief counselor. "Possibly it's going to be hard to work again. It will be with me forever."

Asked if the crew had secured proper permitting to film in the track he said, "As a camera person you don't show up and ask, 'where's the permit?' You're trying to make a movie. You're thinking safety but you're thinking that's someone else's job."

No one was available for comment at Savannah-based Meddin Studios when the AJC stopped by the other day. The newspaper was instead referred to a Los Angeles publicist, who also declined comment beyond the studio's message of condolence: "Our hearts are heavy today, as we continue to keep the entire crew, as well as their families, in our thoughts and prayers. Thank you for doing the same."

The Wayne County Sheriff's Office is investigating, and its most recent statement on the case says, "This investigation is ongoing and CSX Railroad personnel, Rayonier Mill personnel, and the film crew personnel are all cooperating in the investigation. Due to the ongoing investigation no further information can be released at this time."

CSX issued a statement of condolence as well. In an interview with the AJC, a Rayonier spokesman stressed that while the film crew had requested access to the mill property, the accident happened on the tracks - not mill property.

"Where the incident happened was not on our property," said spokesman Russell Schweiss. "The tracks run through our property but they're not our property."

The wreck actually occurred on a CSX train trestle, he noted. 

"Our hearts go out ot the family of the victims," he said.  

Film crew members throughout Georgia and beyond are paying tribute to Jones by adding messages in her honor to their film slates. Slates For Sarah has been compiling photos of the tributes. A memorial service is planned for Wednesday in Columbia, S.C.  An Atlanta service in Jones' memory is planned for Saturday. Details here.

The Savannah Film Office posted this message:

"The City of Savannah and the entire Savannah film community would like to express our condolences to the family and friends of the crewmember who was killed in Wayne County on Thursday while working on the production of “Midnight Rider.” The City of Savannah Film Services Office was working with the production team to permit planned filming activities in Savannah that had been scheduled to begin next week. Our thoughts and prayers are with all those involved in this accident. We have a strong, close community in Savannah and the impact of this is widely felt. We will do whatever we can to support the crew during this difficult time and pray for the swift recovery of those who were injured."   

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