Tawonga mourns counselor

Austen Thibault, The Union Democrat /

A falling treetop killed one camp counselor and injured four other adults Wednesday at Camp Tawonga near Groveland.

No children were hurt.

A large oak tree - more than 70 feet tall - broke about 30 feet above the ground at 8:25 a.m. Wednesday and crashed into a campfire circle where several counselors had gathered, according to Sgt. Jim Oliver of the Tuolumne County Sheriff's Office.

Killed by the falling tree was Annais Rittenburg, 21, a student at the University of California, Santa Cruz.

Rittenberg, originally from New York, was studying environmental science and working at the campus radio station, KZSC. She would have been a senior in the fall.

The tree inflicted serious injuries on counselors Elizabeth "Lizzie" Moore, 18, and Cara Sheedy, age unknown, who were flown to Doctors and Memorial medical centers, respectively, in Modesto. Both were in stable condition today, according to hospital officials.

Two other counselors, Juliet Ulibarri, 21, and Anya Schultz, 20, were taken by ambulance to Sonora Regional Medical Center, where they were treated for minor injuries and released.

According to a statement issued by Ken Kramarz, the camp's executive director, children were eating breakfast inside a nearby dining hall when the tree fell. They were taken to play elsewhere on the 160-acre campus afterward and were told that a tree fell and hurt some people.

Grief counselors were on hand afterward.

"A beloved member of our staff was killed in this terrible and tragic act of nature," Kramarz said. "As our own hearts are still hurting, we send our sincerest condolences to her family and loved ones." Part of the falling tree struck a PG&E power line, temporarily interrupting some of the camp's electrical service. No buildings were hit.

Because of its proximity to the power lines, the tree had been subject to PG&E inspections, which deemed the tree safe as of its last inspection.

Oliver confirmed there was no sign of tree rot or decay, and the Sheriff's Office does not plan to investigate further.

"There was nothing to indicate there was anything wrong with this tree," Oliver said. "Basically, it was a freak accident."

Newspapers and television broadcasts across the country and as far as Europe and Israel covered the story.

Cal Fire spokesman Daniel Berlant in Sacramento said the news frenzy probably resulted from the initial call stating there was a "mass casualty situation" at a children's camp.

He said Cal Fire uses the term "mass casualties" when an event has multiple victims, regardless of their condition. In this case, the caller overstated the number of victims. The first report said 20 or more people were involved.

"A lot of assumptions were made," he said.

Camp Tawonga, founded in 1925, is a privately-owned Jewish camp in the Stanislaus National Forest with about 160 employees. It offers summer camp programs for about 300 campers in second through 12th grades.

Kramarz said the current session of camp was scheduled to conclude today as planned, and the next session of camp will begin on schedule with no interruptions of service and no changes in the schedule.

"We commend the staff and first responders who reacted immediately and efficiently, with emergency rescue crews from Yosemite, Cal Fire, U.S. Forest Service, Tuolumne County Sheriff's Office, and the Office of Emergency Services arriving within minutes of the tragedy," Kramarz said.

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The Union Democrat
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