Tragic accident rocks Camp Tawonga

The accidental death of a 21-year-old Camp Tawonga art teacher last week continues to send shockwaves through the Bay Area Jewish community.

A memorial service was held this week for Annaïs Rittenberg, who died at the camp July 3 when a section of a 70-foot oak tree fell and struck her. Several Bay Area congregations have eulogized Rittenberg in their email newsletters, while the

S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation launched an emergency assistance fund to help affected families and the camp.

Beyond the grief, questions have been raised over the manner in which Camp Tawonga, which is located in the mountains near Yosemite, a 45-minute drive from the small town of Groveland, handled some aspects of the tragedy’s aftermath.

In Facebook and other Internet postings, Tawonga leaders have been taken to task for failing to rapidly update campers’ parents and the Rittenberg family, and deciding not to tell campers that a counselor had been killed.

A camp executive defended the latter course of action, saying the camp staff followed protocols of a longstanding Incident Command System, doing the best they could to keep campers safe.

The accident marked the first on-site fatality in the history of Camp Tawonga, which opened in the 1920s. It occurred at 8:30 a.m. July 3, while some 30 members of the support staff, ages 18 and over, were eating breakfast together at an outdoor stage area next to the dining hall.

Camp director Jamie Simon was standing 50 feet away when she heard a loud crack high up in a black oak tree nearby. Seconds later, she saw a 30-foot section of the tree crashing to the ground.

According to Simon, it took three to five minutes to contact 911 because the falling section had knocked down power and telephone lines. Soon after the call, nearby responders from Cal Fire, the U.S. Forest Service, the Tuolumne County Sheriff’s Office and the Office of Emergency Services began arriving.

“First responders were on scene immediately,” Simon recalled, “but we had to cut debris, and it took a while, up to 15 minutes” to reach all five victims.

In addition to Rittenberg, four other members of the camp staff were struck. Two suffered minor injuries, but two others were more seriously hurt. Some 330 campers, ranging from 7 to 16 years of age, along with their counselors, were eating breakfast in the dining hall at the time. None of them were hurt or witnessed the accident.

The two staffers who were badly hurt, lifeguard Lizzie Moore and driver Cara Sheedy, were transferred by helicopter to a Modesto hospital. Moore’s mother, Carolyn Moore of Redwood City, told j. her 18-year-old daughter suffered several broken ribs, a fractured elbow and fractured lumbar transverse. She has since been released, while Sheedy remained hospitalized as of July 10.  She is in stable condition.

Three-and-a-half hours after the incident, with no official information on the camp’s website or Facebook page at that point, Tawonga executive director Ken Kramarz released a statement by email to parents and the media. Simon said the delay was due to the need to reach the families first and to make sure all the information was accurate.

The release read in part, “A beloved

member of our staff, Annaïs Rittenberg, was killed in this terrible and tragic act of

nature. As our own hearts are still hurting, we send our sincerest condolences to her family and loved ones.”

Kramarz went on to praise the camp’s “on-site staff of 160 trained and dedicated counselors, specialists, therapists and medical staff [who] have done a wonderful job maintaining calm, staying focused on the children, and ensuring that they have a safe, loving camp experience.”

The death of Rittenberg, who was to begin her senior year at U.C. Santa Cruz this fall, sparked an outpouring of grief within the Tawonga community as well as the broader Jewish community. The camp’s Facebook page was flooded with expressions of sympathy for the Rittenberg family.

Emergency vehicles converge at Camp Tawonga on July 3. photo/ap-sonora union democrat-maggie beck

In this instance, however, social media also served as a platform for people to criticize certain decisions made by Tawonga leaders. For example, the counselors knew Rittenberg had died, but the children did not learn of the death until they returned home two days later and were presumably told by their parents.

Simon defended the decision not to tell the campers of the death, citing their young ages — more than 60 were under the age of 9 — and the fact that the camp session would be coming to an end within 48 hours of the accident.

“We didn’t have the resources to support that many grieving campers,” Simon said. “We thought it was a very personal decision about how and when to tell the kids. We got therapists’ input on this. They told us it would be best to allow parents to make that decision.”

Leslie Gordon, a San Francisco parent whose two children were attending Tawonga at the time of the accident, praised that strategy.

“I know it’s a controversial decision,” she said. “There is no guidebook for how to handle a horrific, unexpected tragedy, but I feel Camp Tawonga exercised excellent judgment to let the families discuss something terrible and scary.”

Gordon first learned of a tree falling three hours after the incident via an email from Congregation Sherith Israel of San Francisco, sent by Rabbi Julie Saxe-Taller to congregants with kids at the camp.

“I didn’t understand the magnitude until I logged on to Facebook, which was exploding with all kinds of false information,” Gordon said. “I called my husband pretty hysterical, and said this is serious. From that moment on my phones were ringing off the hook.”

The incorrect information, reported by the Los Angeles Times and a multitude of other media and Internet outlets, included a report that a tree had crashed through the dining hall and that there were up to 20 people injured, with one dead. The initial information seemed highly credible in that it was in a Twitter posting by Cal Fire, one that described the situation as a “mass casualty” event.

An hour after the email from Sherith Israel, Gordon said she received the first official email from the camp at around 1 p.m. It was the first of three from Tawonga sent to parents that day, and it explained what actually happened. Her husband then called the camp and was told their children were fine, as were all campers.

Two days later, when she told 11-year-old Asher and 10-year-old Emmy what had happened to Rittenberg, “They were shocked. My daughter knew her. She got off the bus wearing earrings she made with her. We explained that there were all kinds of kids there — little kids, big kids, families with different values. The camp did the best they could to keep everyone not only physically safe but emotionally safe.”

Adam Rittenberg, brother of Annaïs Rittenberg, doesn’t agree. He said this week that he and his parents are distressed over the way the camp handled his sister’s death, in particular how Rittenberg family members were kept in the dark for hours.

“Annaïs loved Camp Tawonga,” he told j., “and as an institution it does great things for kids, spreading Judaism and a love of nature. Everything I heard about it from Annaïs blew me away. I also understand the way to handle announcements and notifications, and there were numerous, egregious missteps.”

He said three hours after the accident, he received a call from an aunt, who told him there had been a death at the camp. He then called the camp’s San Francisco and Yosemite offices and was told someone would get back to him. No one did, he said.

He also called area hospitals and was told his sister was not admitted. Rittenberg took this as good news, which he shared with his mother, Penny Kreitzer.

Rittenberg said his mother then called the camp — approximately four hours after the accident — seeking conformation her daughter was safe. According to Rittenberg, the phone on the Tawonga end was then handed to a county coroner, who informed Kreitzer that her daughter was dead.

“The only notification came from the coroner,” Rittenberg said, “then the camp followed up. The first call I received was on Sunday [four days after the accident]. There was no reaching out, and no call made to my father, who was traveling. Everything they did was reactionary. There was no forward thinking. No grace. No ‘Let’s put this poor family first, then tell the rest of the families they’re OK.’ ”

Simon said her hands were tied. The delay in family notification occurred because the sheriff required the camp to say nothing until a positive identification could be made, and that the duty of notifying next of kin legally belongs to the sheriff or coroner.

“I’ve apologized to the family,” Simon said, “and we had what I would call a positive conversation considering the circumstances. I do regret it if anything we did caused them any more grief.”

Rittenberg also wonders how and why the tree that fell and killed his sister passed an inspection from PG&E last December. The tree at the time showed no signs of rot or disease, nor were any branches interfering with power lines.

Nicole Liebelt, a PG&E spokesperson, confirmed that inspection but said she had no information on it other than to say, “In general we do inspect any type of vegetation or trees near our power lines. We have a vegetation management function, and if we do find a diseased tree we contact the owner.”

Simon noted there was no wind the day of the accident, and that the camp ordered a subsequent inspection of the tree, which shed its top section with no warning. “We hired an independent arborist,” she said, “and they deemed [the tree] healthy. This person described it as a freak accident.” That arborist examined all oak trees on the property.

Adam Rittenberg, however, told j. “This investigation is not over.”

Meanwhile, Carolyn Moore praised Tawonga for its handling of her daughter’s injuries. She said the camp was “immediately on top of it, from what Lizzie told me. They got to her very quickly, moved her out of the area and stabilized her. The doctor called me from Tawonga, told me her blood pressure was low and started an IV on her right there.”

Moore said she did not receive a call until 90 minutes after the accident, but added, “I would rather they took the time to make sure my child is stabilized and taken care of before I got a phone call. They called me at the earliest possible opportunity. [Lizzie] got banged up pretty good.”

Moore said her daughter is feeling better, that she will heal from all her injuries and that she asked if she could return to the camp for the fourth summer session.

“She feels very emotionally connected,” Moore added. “She’s formed deep friendships at Tawonga, and that in essence may be the key to helping her move forward.”

Moore also called the incident “a freak accident, no doubt in my mind. From everything I can tell there was nothing that could be done. It’s the wilderness. These things happen. I don’t hold the camp responsible for it.”

Simon said that safety is the top priority of the camp, which has long held accreditation from the American Camping Association. Staffers, including counselors in their late teens, must pass rigorous safety training.

“We’re all about managing risk,” she said. “We send kids into backcountry with trained wilderness experts. We have 24-hour trained nursing staff. We make safety part of our ongoing training throughout the summer. We have such a good reputation, we now train other camps on how to respond to emergencies.”

Still, the life of a vivacious 21-year-old has been lost, a tragic fact lost on no one.

Rabbi Sydney Mintz of Congregation Emanu-El in San Francisco knew Rittenberg (she was the cousin of Mintz’s partner, Justine Shapiro). Mintz visited the camp two weeks ago, spending time with Rittenberg then.

“The [Tawonga] community is one of the most beautiful, dedicated loving young staffs I have ever worked with,” Mintz said. “People will find fault. There will be a critique, but I pull people back and say this was an enormous tragedy, a shock for Annaïs’ family and friends, a shock to the kids who looked up to her and a shock for the camp community.”

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is J.'s news editor. He can be reached at dan@jweekly.com.