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Too quiet on the set: Filming accidents often go untold

This undated photo released by Richard Jones shows Sarah Jones filming on location for the television series “The Vampire Diaries.” Jones was killed during a shoot on a train trestle in Georgia in February 2014, and her death has prompted broad safety discussions within the film and television industry and led her parents to advocate for better safety practices during productions. (Colin Duran via AP)

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The 2012 film “The Avengers” cemented Marvel’s dominance at the box office, but the movie had a secret: A man had died bringing the blockbuster to the big screen. John Suttles died after falling from his truck while preparing to drive it to a set, but his name was not listed in the film’s credits. Outside the production and Suttles’ family, the only clue to his death and its connection to the movie was an 84-page investigative file by the workplace safety agency, Cal/OSHA.

That clue was uncovered by AP Entertainment Writer Anthony McCartney, who began investigating set accidents in 2014. After diving into state and federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration records, he discovered that dozens of workers had been killed and more had been seriously hurt on big-name television and film properties. Set accidents remain largely hidden, and the consequences usually amount to mere thousands of dollars in fines paid out of multimillion-dollar budgets, he reported. McCartney also catalogued numerous fatal film-set accidents internationally. His painstaking work wins Beat of the Week.

Set accidents remain largely hidden, and the consequences usually amount to mere thousands of dollars in fines paid out of multimillion-dollar budgets.

McCartney started looking into set accidents after the death of Sarah Jones, an assistant camera operator killed in Georgia in February 2014. While his original premise — that productions outside California might be more dangerous — didn’t pan out, he found dozens of life-altering accidents after combing through an OSHA database.

Workers, he found, were breaking bones, losing fingers and dying. For months, McCartney sought investigative files on many of the accidents, finding out that names like “Ironworks” and “Marvel Eastern” involved accidents on the “Iron Man” and “The Avengers” films. An investigation into an extra’s injury in Indiana revealed that the case had been closed without an inspector interviewing a single witness, which was in sharp contrast to detailed inquiries in other cases.

McCartney’s own experience growing up in Hollywood helped him as he checked the OSHA data. He remembered the death of Brandon Lee,but discovered that the agency didn’t include the son of Bruce Lee,who was accidentally shot to death while filming the “The Crow” in 1993. The agency blamed that omission on a clerical error. It wasn’t the only one.

Court records and news accounts offered additional details,but McCartney also sought to tell the human toll of fatal set accidents. In two instances,he found, families of workers killed received no condolences or funeral assistance from studios or production companies.

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Tim Bridger holds a photo of his younger brother, Michael, in Redondo Beach, Calif., July 8, 2016. Michael Bridger died on Sept. 21, 2012, after suffering a heart attack while cleaning a 24-foot tank being prepared for a scene in the film “The Lone Ranger.” Safety inspectors fined the film’s producers more than $61,000 for violating several safety protocols, including allowing a backup diver to leave Bridger in the water for 10 minutes, not having anyone with adequate CPR training on site, and not requiring health exams for divers being used on the film. – AP Photo / Anthony McCartney

After reading the 462-page OSHA investigation of diver Michael Bridger’s death on “The Lone Ranger,” McCartney scanned the film’s credits to see whether his name appeared. It didn’t. He then sought out the man’s family,writing a letter to Bridger’s brother and sending it to two possible addresses. One came back undeliverable,the other unanswered,but a few weeks later, McCartney tried again and got a response. Bridger’s brothertold McCartney about his failed efforts to sue “The Lone Ranger” producers and how he never received a call or condolences from the studio that produced the film.

Re-assessing the case of Suttles,a truck driver killed during “The Avengers,” McCartney found his family had been similarly ignored. In an interview that became the lead of the story,Suttles’ daughter spoke of the death of the Vietnam Veteran who had proudly worked on several Marvel films but whose death had gone unmentioned and unnoticed publicly. “It was very disheartening to see that in the end,that they treated him like a number,” she said.

To pull the story together,McCartney used every reporting tool: He employed computer-assisted reporting techniques,filed a couple dozen public records act requests,coaxed reluctant sources,and shot photos when needed.

For work revealing a very dark side of the glittery entertainment industry, McCartney wins this week’s $500 prize.

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