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Movie crew in fatal Georgia train crash was on tracks without permission, investigator says

JESUP, Ga. - A movie crew was working on train tracks without permission from the railroad when a freight train crashed into the production team and its equipment, killing one and injuring seven others, a sheriff's investigator said Friday.

The Savannah-based crew was shooting footage for "Midnight Rider," a film based on the life of singer Gregg Allman, when the crash happened Thursday afternoon. Wayne County sheriff's detectives were working Friday to piece together how and why it happened.

The deadly collision took place at a railroad trestle that crosses the Altamaha River in the rural county about 60 miles southwest of Savannah. The tracks, owned by CSX Railroad, cross private land owned by forest-products company Rayonier, which has a nearby paper mill. Joe Gardner, the lead detective on the case, said the crew had Rayonier's permission to film on its property next to the train tracks.

"CSX has told me they were aware they were out there, but they did not have permission to be on the train tracks," Gardner told reporters.

The train struck and killed a woman identified by the sheriff's department as 27-year-old Sarah Elizabeth Jones of Atlanta. Gardner said he didn't know what job she performed on the film crew. Seven others were injured, one seriously enough to be taken by helicopter to a Savannah hospital. Further information on their conditions was not immediately available Friday.

Trespassing onto railroad tracks is illegal under Georgia law and punishable as a misdemeanour.

Production of "Midnight Rider," starring actor William Hurt as the Allman Brothers singer in his later years and All-American rejects vocalist Tyson Ritter as a young Allman, began this month in coastal Georgia. The film is based on Allman's 2012 memoir, "My Cross to Bear," with production based at Meddin Studios in Savannah.

The film studio Friday referred calls to a Los Angeles publicist, Nadine Jolson, who did not immediately return phone calls seeking comment but emailed a brief statement.

"All of us on the production team are devastated by the tragic accident that happened today," the studio's statement said. "Our thoughts and prayers are with the family of our crew member."

CSX issued a statement saying the railroad company was "deeply saddened" by the crash and co-operating with investigators. It provided no further details other than to say the train involved was travelling to Savannah from Memphis, Tenn.

A CSX spokeswoman, Kristin Seay, declined to comment further and would not confirm that film crew had no permission from the railroad to be working on the train tracks.

Authorities provided few details about the collision. Gardner said it wasn't clear if crew members were actually on the trestle bridging the river or just on the tracks at the river's edge. He said the train smashed some of the crew's equipment, and it's possible some of the injuries were caused by flying debris. Among the items found on the tracks was what appeared to be a mattress for a bed, Gardner said.

It also wasn't clear if the film crew was waiting to film a train or was caught unaware by one approaching, Gardner said.

"That's a very active train track," he said. "There's probably anywhere from up to 10 trains a day that go through on those tracks."

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