SAVANNAH — A director who was working on a movie about singer Gregg Allman testified Monday that his assistants were in charge of location permits and safety precautions when a freight train plowed into his crew on a Georgia railroad bridge, killing a worker and injuring six.
He also insisted that Allman, who is suing producers to win back movie rights to his life story, knew about plans to shoot a scene with a bed across the train tracks in the production of "Midnight Rider."
"I read the script to him for 4½ hours on a Monday," director Randall Miller testified in a Savannah courtroom. "It says there's a bed in the middle of a track. Again, I hadn't been to the location. The location was picked a week beforehand."
Miller was grilled by an attorney for the Allman Brothers Band singer about the Feb. 20 crash, which killed one of the director's camera assistants and injured six other crew members. Allman's lawyers have asked a Chatham County Superior Court judge to stop Miller and his production company from reviving the project, arguing his legal rights have lapsed and that the director's actions have harmed Allman's reputation.
Miller's testimony during more than an hour on the witness stand Monday marked his first public comments since the crash. He bristled at the suggestion that he had been cavalier about his crew's safety.
"I was in the middle of the track and I almost died," he said.
Investigators say Miller, his crew and actor William Hurt — who was to star as Allman — were shooting on a railroad bridge spanning the Altamaha River when a train came upon them at 55 mph. The train crashed through a bed set on the tracks as a prop and struck and killed 28-year-old camera assistant Sarah Jones. Others were injured either by the train or flying debris. Sheriff's investigators in Wayne County, southwest of Savannah, say the crew did not have a permit from CSX Railroad, which owns the tracks. Local prosecutors are still weighing whether to file criminal charges.
When Allman attorney David Long-Daniels asked Miller whether he had written permission from CSX, the director answered: "That's not my job." He said crew members were placed along the tracks to look out for trains, but he didn't know how far away. He said an assistant told crew members on the bridge they would have about 60 seconds to flee if a train came.
"I did not know it was a live train trestle," said Miller, who insisted the crew had permission to film from paper-products company Rayonier, which has a mill nearby and owns the property surrounding the train tracks. "We were told there were two trains from Rayonier coming through, and no more trains that day."
Despite the focus on the crash, the claims in Allman's lawsuit are largely contractual. He says Unclaimed Freight Productions, headed by Miller and his wife, forfeited its rights to the movie by missing a key production deadline that passed when the project was shelved after the crash.
Judge John Morse Jr., who was asked to temporarily stop any work on the Allman film until the lawsuit is resolved, recessed court without taking action after attorneys requested time to negotiate. Morse ordered them to report back Tuesday morning.
Allman, who had a liver transplant in 2010 and cancelled performances in March because of illness, wasn't in court Monday. His attorney told the judge the 66-year-old singer remains in poor health.
"Mr. Allman is not well and he ought to have the right to decide who tells his story in his lifetime," Long-Daniels said.
The director's attorney, Donnie Dixon, argued Allman was trying to back out of the project because of a tragedy and shouldn't be allowed to.
"Just because the going gets rough, just because it gets inconvenient, that doesn't mean Mr. Allman can pick up his marbles and go home," Dixon said.