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Art counselor killed by falling tree at camp outside Yosemite

UC Santa Cruz student Annais Rittenberg, 21, is killed and four others are hurt when an oak tree topples at Camp Tawonga, a Jewish youth camp.

July 03, 2013|By Joseph Serna and Matt Hamilton
  • The entrance to Camp Tawonga in Groveland, Calif., is shown. One person was killed and four others were injured when a large tree fell at the youth camp near Yosemite National Park. No children were hurt.
The entrance to Camp Tawonga in Groveland, Calif., is shown. One person… (Maggie Beck / Associated…)

A summer camp counselor was killed and four others were hurt Wednesday outside Yosemite National Park when a tree fell onto a campfire circle, officials said.

About 8:30 a.m., a 3- to 4-foot-wide oak tree toppled onto a bench and campfire circle outside the dining hall during breakfast time at Camp Tawonga near the park.

Annais Rittenberg, 21, an art counselor at the camp, was killed.

"I've lost a beautiful child through that tree," said Rittenberg's mother, Penny Kreitzer. "I wish the tree had fallen on Saturday when no one was there."

The emergency call initially went out as a "mass casualty incident" with 20 injured and sparked a panic among the parents of children at Camp Tawonga, a 160-acre Jewish youth camp set along the middle fork of the Tuolumne River in the Stanislaus National Forest outside Yosemite National Park.

Parents and media flooded the camp and the Tuolumne County Sheriff's Department phone lines with calls. The area has virtually no phone reception and campers aren't allowed to have cellphones, parents and former counselors said.

The communication blackout led some parents to fear the worst. Others, like Kreitzer, were praying for the best.

Kreitzer recalled hoping that her daughter was in the art room, away from where news reports indicated a tree had fallen.

She said she called local hospitals and camp offices to see if her daughter was safe. When the hospitals said no patients matched her daughter's name, she became less anxious.

"I started to have hope," Kreitzer said.

She eventually learned of her daughter's death from a law enforcement official, not a camp representative.

The tree tore down power lines when it fell, knocking out electricity and forcing the camp to rely on backup generators Wednesday. Parents had to call the camp's corporate offices in San Francisco for information.

Shortly after 1 p.m., the camp informed parents that no children were injured, a point underscored in the email to parents with the subject in all capital letters: "EVERY CHILD AT CAMP IS FINE."

The letter stated that campers were continuing with their day as firefighters and U.S. Forest Service rangers worked to cut up and remove the tree. Children there attend second to 12th grade.

"The campers are doing well and are participating in camp activities away from the scene," Tawonga Executive Director Ken Kramarz said in the email to parents. "Our on-site staff therapists are working closely with First Responders grief experts to help care for our community in this difficult time."

Four other camp employees were hurt and taken to hospitals. By Wednesday night, staffers Lizzie Moore and Cara Sheedy remained hospitalized while Juliet Ulibarri and Anya Schultz were released, according to camp officials.

A strong bond develops between the campers and counselors, said Lena Brook, who has a 10-year-old daughter at Tawonga.

"Those counselors are the avatars for parents," she said. "They're standing out as role models. They're where the kids go to help navigate disputes, the whole range of emotions campers experience."

Rittenberg wanted to pursue a career involving nature and possibly photography after graduation from UC Santa Cruz. Kreitzer likened her daughter to Jane Goodall, equally adventurous and curious. Rittenberg had journeyed to South Africa and had worked with injured animals, and during the last three quarters at college had done field work in Big Sur.

Reached by phone Wednesday, her mother lamented that she had not heard about her daughter's most recent adventure: a hiking trip to the top of Mt. Lyell, the highest peak in Yosemite National Park.

Annais Rittenberg's brother, Adam Rittenberg, said their father found out about his daughter's death while traveling in Moscow. The pain is especially acute, he said, because of their father's affinity for summer camp.

"Jewish camp was his life as a teenager — it turned his life around," Adam Rittenberg said.

Campers were inside the dining hall when the tree fell, said Jennifer Rosenberg, whose daughter is an employee at the camp.

"She said it sounded like an earthquake," Rosenberg said. "And then a big dust cloud."

joseph.serna@latimes.com

matthew.hamilton@latimes.com

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