Televised report points finger at Tawonga for fatal tree fall

Nearly two years after a section of a tree fell at Camp Tawonga and killed a 21-year-old art teacher, a televised report by NBC Bay Area’s investigative unit has reopened old wounds.

The 61⁄2-minute report that aired May 11 raised questions about Tawonga’s safety record when it came to monitoring the 70-foot oak, from which a 30-foot section fell on the morning of July 3, 2013.

Annais Rittenberg

At the time, several dozen staffers were eating breakfast in an outdoor amphitheater next to the dining hall. Annais Rittenberg was struck and killed, and four others were injured, two severely. It was the first fatality in the history of the 90-year-old camp, which is located near Yosemite National Park.

NBC Bay Area news anchor Raj Mathai introduced the piece by saying, “We’re now learning it’s a tragedy that could have been prevented,” and Mark Rittenberg, the father of the victim, said, “I have reason to believe [the accident] could have been avoided.”

Though Cal/OSHA called the accident an “act of nature,” NBC Bay Area crew cited documents suggesting the camp had been warned as far back as 2006, about the tree that toppled,  with one arborist calling it “in fair to poor vigor, with dead branches up to 3 inches in diameter,” and though classifying it as “not a high priority for removal,” pruning in the next year or two was recommended.

NBC Bay Area (KNTV–Channel 11) also quoted from a PG&E document, which read, in part, “Customer [Camp Tawonga] does not want trees removed or made safe.” The reporter, Vicky Nguyen, did not clarify whether that statement was made in reference to the fateful oak — which she said was 300 years old — nor did she say whether Camp Tawonga did indeed go on to trim or remove trees. She did say the investigative team “poured through thousands of pages of court documents.”

Mark Rittenberg and Penny Kreitzer, parents of Annais Rittenberg, in the NBC Bay Area report

“When you have a campground, you cannot wait for the inevitability of nature,” Penny Kreitzer, the mother of Annais Rittenberg, said in the piece, in which no one aside from Kreitzer and Mark Rittenberg was interviewed on tape.

Though no Camp Tawonga staff spoke to NBC Bay Area, camp director Jamie Simon-Harris did agree to talk to J. She said she and her colleagues were “disappointed that the context of the facts was not fully presented” by NBC Bay Area, and that the San Jose–based TV station “missed the mark on Camp Tawonga’s stellar safety reputation and safety vigilance.”

Simon-Harris also emphasized that no inspector had ever recommended cutting down the oak tree, that it had been trimmed on two occasions and that the camp has “always done recommended trimming and tree removals. Always.”

A statement released in response to the televised report, signed by Simon-Harris and Tawonga executive director Ken Kramarz, noted that trees on camp property have always been inspected. Since Rittenberg’s death, two new teams of arborists have been hired to inspect the thousands of trees before camp season, and the camp follows all recommendations, including the most conservative, the release noted. The Jewish summer camp will begin its 2015 season on June 14.

Simon-Harris told J. that since the NBC Bay Area report aired, she has been “inundated with positive support and love. The Tawonga community has been rallying around what they know to be true, that safety has been and always will be our highest priority.”

NBC Bay Area closed the report by noting that the Rittenberg family had settled a lawsuit filed against PG&E, companies the utility had hired to inspect trees near power lines, and an independent arborist. Tawonga was not sued because Annais Rittenberg had signed a release before joining the staff.

Simon-Harris noted that three of the four staffers injured in the 2013 accident have returned to work at Camp Tawonga.

In their written statement, Simon-Harris and Kramarz said the accident “deeply saddened the [camp and Jewish] community, and our thoughts are with [the Rittenberg] family every day.”

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a J. staff writer. He retired as news editor in 2020. Dan can be reached at dan@jweekly.com.