Less than two months after his daughter was killed on a film set in southeast Georgia, Richard Jones grapples with waves of unexpected grief, such as a day last week when a riverside walk at home in South Carolina took him past a railroad bridge.
“The train came, and I lost it,” Jones said, tearing up at the painfully fresh memory. “It just hits, and it's hard to say when it's going to come.”
A freight train crossing the Altamaha River on Feb. 20 killed 27-year-old camera assistant Sarah Jones as it plowed into a film crew in Georgia’s rural Wayne County. It was the first day of shooting “Midnight Rider,” a movie based on the life of Gregg Allman, starring William Hurt as the Allman Brothers Band singer.
Jones' parents, who live in West Columbia, where their daughter went to high school, told The Associated Press on Wednesday that the film's producers needlessly put workers at risk. They have hired an Atlanta law firm to help them find answers and hold someone accountable.
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“They did so many wrong things on so many levels, it's just unbelievable,” said Richard Jones. “This should not have happened. It's senseless.”
Authorities say Hurt, director Randall Miller and the crew were shooting on a railroad trestle when the train came speeding toward them at 58 mph. The train smashed into a bed the crew had placed on the tracks. Six other crew members were injured, either by the train or by flying shrapnel from the bed.
Elizabeth Jones learned her daughter was dead from a close co-worker. The director called later that day.
“He was very upset,” she said. “He kept repeating, 'I'm sorry, I'm sorry.' But he wouldn't say anything else.”
Sheriff's investigators say the production crew had permission to be on private property surrounding the tracks, but not on the tracks, which are owned by CSX Railroad. Results of their investigation will soon go to prosecutors, who are weighing possible criminal charges. The National Transportation Safety Board and the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration are also investigating.
“I think when everything's done and said, it will be clear the railroad never told them they could be on the tracks,” said Joe Gardner, the sheriff's lead investigator on the train collision.
Donnie Dixon, a Savannah attorney hired by Miller, did not immediately return a phone call. The director and his company, Unclaimed Freight Productions, shelved production a week after the crash. No plans have been announced to resume shooting.
Jones' parents said their daughter, the middle of three children, was drawn to filmmaking from an early age. Young Sarah loved to shoot home movies starring her younger sister and the family dog.
As a college student in South Carolina, she landed an internship on the TV series “Army Wives,” her parents said, and she loved it so much she offered to stick around for free. Paid work followed on “The Vampire Diaries” and other productions after she settled in Atlanta. As a camera assistant, the job required Jones to carry large pieces of equipment that seemed outsized for her slender, 5-foot-6 frame. Co-workers nicknamed her The Ant.
An adventurous traveler, Jones was planning a trip overseas with her mother after shooting ended on “Midnight Rider” and had begun writing a script for a film project of her own. Now her parents are collecting donations to fund filmmaking programs in high schools.
Jones' death, meanwhile, has galvanized behind-the-scenes workers on TV and movie crews to push for improved safety standards on film sets. Their outpouring of grief led to the Academy Awards briefly showing an onscreen banner with Jones' name and photo during its Oscars broadcast March 3.
“She was planning her future, planning her life ahead of her, and all of a sudden it's taken away,” Elizabeth Jones said. “She had no clue, no idea.”