Opinion: The tragic lesson of Sarah Jones

The film industry has taken on the challenge of spreading the story of Sarah Jones, a camera assistant who was killed during an illegal shoot occurring on a train trestle over the Altamaha River in Wayne County, Georgia.  Twitter is afire with photos and the hashtag #SlatesforSarah that support a rigorous review of the application of safety standards in Hollywood.

I have a history in the railroad industry, and though it was a brief year and a half, it was directly involved with safety – I was the safety administrator for a railroad management company with over a dozen short-line railroads in the US and Canada.  I conducted investigations and recorded data for hundreds of derailments and accidents in that short time, including one fatality.  That fatality was a woman walking on the tracks, talking on her cell phone, a place she never should have been.

tl;dr It is illegal to walk on or adjacent to railroad tracks unless you have explicit permission to be there, usually in the presence of a railroad employee.

That was the single solitary problem with this accident.  Again, it never should have happened.  You are never, ever ever ever allowed on a railroad right of way, that means the rail line itself or the easement (usually about 5-10 feet on either side of the tracks), without explicit written permission. It is railroad property and private. If you’re on one (that is not a public crossing, obvs) you are trespassing. Period.

Consider the train itself.  The average train weighs between 8,000 and 10,000 tons – that’s 20 million pounds.  It’s moving at an average of 55-60 miles per hour.  What does that mean for you, a 120-180ish pound human that can only run about 12 miles per hour?  The State of Minnesota’s Operation Lifesaver says this:  “The average freight train… traveling at 55 miles an hour may take the length of about 18 football fields to stop.”

You can’t move fast enough, and the train can’t stop fast enough.

In addition to the crew on the tracks, there was also a metal bed frame and mattress.  While the myth that a penny can derail a train is false, placing debris on railroad tracks is yet another legal violation.  It doesn’t take much to cause a derailment – the majority of derailments simply happen and are minor.  But a derailment with debris in the way, or on an area like a bridge or trestle, can have incredibly destructive and deadly consequences.  The debris in the way of the train that killed Sarah Jones could have cost the engineer and conductor of the train their lives as well – never mind they have to live with the fact that their train killed a person, despite the fact that they were not at fault in the least.

I was only involved with the railroad industry for a short time, but it impressed upon me the incredible power and danger of these vehicles. STAY OFF TRACKS, PERIOD. There was no ‘confusion’ about this situation, and the people who allowed it to happen are criminals.  They broke not only safety standards put in place for the protection of their crew, but they were also breaking a multitude of laws.  Their illegal presence in that location cost a young woman her life.

Whatever industry you are in, please do not put yourself at risk like this. Do what you can to know where you should and should not be when filming, and stay safe.


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