It is Friday, and I’m in the TGYK Hotel on Montgomery Street in downtown Savannah. It’s early and a young woman is setting out a tray of bagels, muffins and croissants that will soon be slathered with butter and consumed by the guests who are now sleeping in the rooms above.
The lobby is dominated by a sleek marble bar that comes with small brass lamps creating discrete pools of light. And I have have inserted my legal pad, my Pentel Rollerball and my yet-to-fully-focus eyes into one such pool.
There is also a television monitor that is currently broadcasting Savannah’s morning news into the deserted, minimalist lobby. The news this morning concerns a shooting that took place at the Jennifer Ross Soccer Complex.
We are informed by the reporter that the shooting has resulted in the death of Ralph Young. The owner of the Savannah Royal Lions 6 and Under Youth League — one Anthony Rhodes — is providing the young players with grief counselors free of charge.
As I sit in the empty lobby thinking about Savannah’s 6 and Under Youth League, there is something familiar, strangely familiar, about the grief counseling part of today’s story. Something I can’t quite grasp this morning.
But then, after another cup of hotel coffee, the neurons kick-in and I remember a late night call from our son, Zachary, who said, “Dad I’m OK. I’m still being treated in the Emergency Room. But you must understand that I’m OK.”
At that particular moment, March of 2014, my son was a camera operator doing work on a movie called Midnight Rider. Midnight Rider was going to tell the story of Gregg Allman the famous rock musician who grew up in Georgia. I also knew that Zach was shooting in Wayne County, Ga., just south of Savannah.
I knew these details because earlier that month I had been introduced to some of the movie people at Circa 1875, a well-regarded Savannah bistro. But I didn’t know he was filming on a railroad trestle that crossed-over the Altamaha River.
As a matter of fact Zach and his crew were filming a scene — a dream sequence — that had William Hurt lying on a hospital gurney positioned in the middle of the trestle.
As he was filming a freight train was seen in the distance and it became apparent that the train was not going to stop. It also became apparent that the crew had less than a minute to get Hurt and the gurney off the trestle. They were able to get Hurt off the bridge, but the gurney remained stuck and it was demolished when struck by the train’s engine. Parts of the gurney struck my son in the leg, causing minor injury, but one piece struck and killed Sarah Jones.
It would later turn out that the filmmakers had been denied permission to film on the bridge, but decided to go ahead with the scene anyway. The accident focused — for the first time in my memory — the nation’s attention on movie set safety, or lack of safety in many situations.
Even though the movie was canceled, Hurt remained in Savannah. It was clear that he had been shaken by Sarah Jones’ death and wanted to do something. Something more. So for much of that time he met with Zach and the other crew members trying to talk them through the experience.
For a number of months thereafter there was a national discussion about Sarah Jones and our son was asked to speak publicly about what he had seen that day. Eventually there was a trial, a reckoning, where the director, Randall Miller, pleaded guilty to involuntary manslaughter and served a year in jail.
Sitting here, in this lobby, I know life is a journey that comes with occasional laughter and transient moments of happiness. But it also comes with tragedy. Most parents spend their lives trying to protect their children, and stiff-arm that tragedy. But actually there is only so much that can be said or done before the fact.
For years after the accident we watched our son hoping those memories would fade. And we have come to think that most of the scars are gone — that he has moved off of that railroad trestle.
But yesterday’s shooting at the Ross Soccer Complex reminds me of the random tragedy that is attached to life. One wonders if grief counselors and their words are ever enough.
Scott Graber is a lawyer, novelist, veteran columnist and longtime resident of Port Royal. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.