February 28, 2014 at 1:00 am

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Camera assistant's death rallies worried workers

Grieving filmmakers sent in photos of clapboard slates to Facebook's 'Slates for Sarah' page in tribute. (Facebook)

They are the film industry’s unsung heroes: the grips and assistants whose behind-the-scenes work carries production from start to finish. Known to work grueling hours in less than ideal conditions, they make up a tight-knit band of brothers and sisters.

Last week, an on-the-job death of one their own sent the film community reeling in shock and sadness.

Sarah Jones, a 27-year-old camera assistant working on the the film “Midnight Rider,” a biopic about Gregg Allman of the Allman Brothers Band, was killed Feb. 20 in Savannah, Ga. She was part of a crew testing shots for a dream sequence on a narrow railroad trestle over a river when suddenly the dream came to life. A freight train came barreling across the bridge. “It was going full speed,” a co-worker told the Atlanta Journal Constitution. “We were running. (Jones) said: ‘I can’t carry all this stuff.’ I said, ‘Throw it. Throw it down.’ ”

But Jones was not able to get out of the way in time. Seven other crew members were injured.

Now, concern is mounting over safety standards for these lower-rung workers who are often willing to forgo caution and prove their mettle to land the next job.

“The tragedy that took Sarah’s life is just unforgivable,” said Ellen Finn of Oak Park. Finn is a production coordinator who has worked in film for close to 30 years. “It just hit me, as a union set dresser, I could have been one of the people on the tracks getting the “set” ready for the big shot.

“Most people would never think that making a movie is a dangerous career or workplace,” Finn continued. “And while there are there are plenty of rules and regulations and union standards in place to protect all of us, the more I read about what went on that day, I can see many of those standards were ignored.”

The film community responded swiftly. By Wednesday, the Facebook page “Slates for Sarah” had garnered more than 30,000 likes, and a constant stream of photos of clapboard slates was being sent in by film and TV crews from “Veep” and “Parks and Recreation” to “The Mentalist” and “Grey’s Anatomy.”

The Facebook page also also asks people to petition for Sarah’s name to be included in the “In Memoriam” list during the Academy Awards this Sunday night.

Her obituary said she was a 2009 graduate of College of Charleston, where she studied media communications and film studies. She began her career working on the set of “Army Wives” and also worked on “The Vampire Diaries.”

A member of the International Cinematographer’s Guild said the last time a union member died in an accident was in 1997.

The mourners expressed a common theme: It could have been me.

Sebastian Boada, a first assistant cameraman in Detroit, said the death hit so close to home because they’ve been in similar positions.

“I didn’t know Sarah personally, and I was surprised at how deeply her passing affected me. I soon realized it was because we are all Sarah. We have all endured the long hours, the weather conditions, and we have all been in situations where, in retrospect, we wonder what we were thinking. These senseless accidents need to stop.”

Joe Carter of Saginaw, who has a decades-long career working in digital media production, said he hopes for reform.

“I’ve heard it said that making a film is like going to war, but I’ve never considered the cost in human life. This is a tragedy and one would hope that, if only in Sarah Jones’ memory, film set protocols can be refined for the safety of all on set.”

One local production assistant said it’s difficult for entry level crew members to speak up if they have concerns about safety lest they get branded. Intent on advancing up the ladder, they are reticent to object to any task for fear of being blacklisted.

If they don’t do what they’re told on one set, or do it fast enough, she said, the fear is they won’t get hired on the next film.

As Sebastian Boada put it: “No movie is worth someone’s life, not ever.”

MKeenan@detroitnews.com

Grieving filmmakers sent in photos of clapboard slates to Facebook's 'Slates for Sarah' page in tribute. (Facebook)