How does a routine fall lead to the death of an experienced stuntman?
That’s what Georgia police are investigating after the tragic death of stunt performer John Bernecker, who died on July 12 after plummeting headfirst from a 22-foot balcony on the set of The Walking Dead.
Capt. John Kennedy has been assigned the case through the Coweta County Sheriff’s Office, which has been instructed to “freeze” all provision of investigation materials to the media amid the probe.
Local law enforcement ran into trouble right after the incident. Officials failed to interview stunt coordinator Monty L. Simons on the scene as most crewmembers had been instructed to leave within minutes of the accident.
Responding officer Deputy Sheriff J.P. Traylor was also unable to interview TWD‘s first assistant director on the episode, the person who generally is responsible for set safety.
Instead, Traylor was able to speak with only two of those present: second assistant director Matthew Goodwin and actor Austin Amelio, who was also on the balcony during the fall.
Bernecker’s girlfriend Jennifer Cocker, a fellow stunt performer, has questioned Amelio’s presence on the balcony, noting it was the wrong move to “put a super professional stuntman with an inexperienced actor who doesn’t know what he’s doing.”
But bigger issues are still being called into question, like why set photos show a balcony without any padding below, and why it took 17 minutes for an ambulance to reach the performer.
According to Traylor’s report, Bernecker was supposed to fall from the balcony railing onto a pad made of boxes, PortaPit pads, and another large pad, but he missed the padding by inches.
The report quotes Goodwin saying that Bernecker signaled he was ready and got most of the way over, but “did not appear to get good separation from the balcony.” He attempted to abort the stunt by grabbing onto the railing with both hands, but failed.
Experts say that stunt performers are responsible for reviewing the safety of the stunt design and demanding changes if necessary. However, this accident may lead to changes in the SAG-AFTRA agreement between the studios and the union to give stunt performers more control over their own safety.
Veteran stuntman Conrad Palmisano says we may never find out what specifically went wrong in the ill-fated stunt, telling The Hollywood Reporter:
“Something obviously went wrong. It’s never a black and white thing. It’s always a pinch of this, a dash of that, then something tragic happens.”
Bernecker had racked up 93 stunt credits in less than a decade. Our hearts go out to his loved ones during this devastating time.
[Image via Facebook.]