'Midnight Rider' Filmmakers Edited Footage from Horrific Train Accident Shoot

It was the only scene that was ever made for the ill-fated movie.

March 20, 2015, 4:00 PM

— -- “Midnight Rider” filmmakers took footage shot the day of the horrific train accident that killed crewmember Sarah Jones and injured seven others and edited it into a scene, the only one that was ever made for the ill-fated movie.

In the raw footage, shot on Feb. 20, 2014, by the still photographer on the Georgia set, “Midnight Rider” crewmembers and actor Wyatt Russell can be seen struggling to get off the tracks, some trying to move a hospital bed and other props, as a freight train barrels towards them. Within seconds, the train is upon them with a deafening roar, and the video goes sideways, then dark.

Despite the death of 27-year-old camera assistant Sarah Jones and the others injured, some of the footage shot that day was later edited into a dream sequence scene, in which the main character chooses not to follow his deceased brother to a premature death.

The edited scene plays in the video player above, and includes audio of “Midnight Rider” director Randall Miller describing the scene. The film was supposed to be based on the life of rock star Gregg Allman, played by Academy Award-winning actor William Hurt, but after the accident, Allman sued to end production permanently.

Miller’s defense attorneys said Miller had the scene edited to help explain, as part of his defense, why they were on the tracks that day.

“It was really done to show us, as his attorneys, what was going on, what was in his mind,” Miller defense attorney Ed Garland told “20/20.” “And we would have shown what he was trying to create in his mind, where his mental focus was. And we said, ’We want to know what was in your head,’ and he said, ‘The best way to show that is show what I was trying to do.’”

Miller, his wife producer Jody Savin, producer Jay Sedrish and first assistant director Hillary Schwartz, were charged with involuntary manslaughter and criminal trespass. Miller pleaded guilty on March 9 to the charges, so the edited scene was never shown in court. He was sentenced to two years in prison and ordered to pay a $20,000 fine. Miller is also prohibited from being a director or assistant director for the next 10 years. It the first time in history that a Hollywood director had been held responsible for a death on set.

“It was a very big deal because...in California, they're invincible,” said Brunswick Assistant District Attorney John Johnson. “It showed that directors and producers… can be held responsible if a crewmember dies… We take life seriously here in South Georgia, and we also take death seriously too.”

Jay Sedrish and Hillary Schwartz also pleaded guilty to with involuntary manslaughter and criminal trespass charges and each were sentenced to 10 years probation. As part of the plea deal for Miller, charges against Savin, who had pleaded not guilty, were dropped.

The scene the “Midnight Rider” cast and crew were filming that fateful day was set up on the active train trestle over the Altamaha River at Doctortown, Georgia, and the crew had placed a metal-framed hospital bed on tracks as a prop. Although they were actively filming the scene, it was marked as a pre-production shoot, according to the production schedule obtained by "20/20."

There were no railroad officials or medical help present on set, witnesses told "20/20," nor was the film's location manager, Charley Baxter, there.He hadn't been able to obtain permission from the railroad company to film on the trestle bridge. Baxter emailed the railroad's final refusal to producers the morning of the accident, before filming began.

The owner of the land adjacent to the bridge had allegedly given the production crew permission to be next to the tracks and had also reportedly told them that only two trains would use the track that day.

The crew was in position on the tracks and filming when a CSX train Q12519 with two locomotives and 37 freight cars came barreling through at an estimated 57 miles per hour, according to a National Transportation Safety Board report on its website.

When the train came, “Midnight Rider” hairstylist Joyce Gilliard said the cast and crew had to run along a narrow pathway toward the oncoming train to get off the trestle. When she realized she couldn't get off the trestle bridge fast enough, Gilliard said she held onto a girder.

"The pressure from the wind from the train was so strong that, holding onto the girder, I wasn't able to. It pulled me off," she said.

The train struck the hospital bed, and in effect, turned it to shrapnel. It smashed into Gilliard's left arm, snapping a bone. Days later when she was recovering in the hospital, Gilliard said Randall Miller paid her a visit.

“He came to my hospital room a couple days after the tragedy happened,” she said. “He didn’t say anything, he just cried. He just cried.”

Miller declined to speak with “20/20.” His publicist provided us with video testimonials to his good character from 16 friends and associates.

"I believe stronger than ever that he went onto that train trestle with the firm belief that it was completely safe, that no trains were going to come," "Midnight Rider" editor Dan O'Brien said in one of the testimonials.

In a statement, Miller said he pleaded guilty in part, “out of respect for the Jones family and to not put them through a difficult trial... I am heartbroken by this. I hope my actions have spared the Jones family more anguish and that the on-set safety measures that were lacking before this terrible tragedy will now take precedence for all in the industry.”

Elizabeth and Richard Jones, the parents of Sarah Jones, announced in November they reached a settlement with several defendants in the wrongful death suit they filed against the film’s producers and corporations who own the railroad tracks where the accident took place.

“We are, as much as I can use the word, ‘satisfied,’ with what came of the case,” Richard Jones said, referring to the “Midnight Rider” filmmakers’ sentencing. “I believe it sends a message, frankly that if you do not respect those that you're in charge of, that you may end up behind bars."

In honor of their daughter, Elizabeth and Richard Jones are also trying to bring awareness to safer film sets with their website, Safety for Sarah.

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