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A 21-year-old summer camp art counselor was killed Wednesday when a large oak tree fell near Yosemite National Park, camp officials said.
The worker was identified as Annais Rittenberg by Camp Tawonga, a Jewish summer camp popular with families in the San Francisco Bay Area. No children were hurt.
“A beloved member of our staff … was killed in this tragic act of nature,” the camp’s executive director, Ken Kramarz, said in an email to parents Wednesday evening. “As our own hearts are still hurting, we send our sincerest condolences to her family and loved ones.”
Four other adults were treated at hospitals after the tree fell while the children were eating breakfast. The tree took down power lines near the campfire area and dining hall but did not damage any buildings.
In the email sent to parents, Kramarz said the children were only told that a tree fell and some staff had been injured.
“We believe that you, their parents, are best suited to share the sad news that one of the injured staff did not survive,” read the email. “Our on-site therapist staff are closely monitoring the well-being of the children and staff with additional support.”
Rittenberg’s mother, Penny Kreitzer, said she received a call from the camp Wednesday and immediately knew something was wrong.
“I said ‘Is she dead?’ And he said yes. And then I lost it,” she told KGO-TV.
Rittenberg was a student at the University of California, Santa Cruz, where she majored in environmental studies and served as the world music director at the college radio station, station manager Alec Howard told The Associated Press.
“I’m still kind of reeling back from the shock. Everybody here is really saddened by it,” Howard said.
Howard said Rittenberg was a very poised, sweet woman who hosted a Cajun and African music radio show and was beloved by her fellow DJs.
Authorities said Pacific Gas & Electric Co. was responsible for annual inspections of the oak tree that fell because of the nearby power lines that were knocked down Wednesday. Tuolumne County sheriff’s spokesman Sgt. Jim Oliver said PG&E had inspected the tree and found nothing wrong with it. He described the tree falling as a “freak accident.”
“We have an annual inspection process of trees in our encroachment, but don’t know the details in this,” said Nicole Lieblet, a PG&E spokesperson. “We will cooperate with the lead agency on the investigation and will look at any information we have. … Everyone wants to know how this took place.”
Liebelt said she it was too early to know if the agency kept specific inspection records for the fallen tree.
Parents of the campers said it was nerve-wracking having to wait hours to receive the camp’s email assuring parents that all the children were safe.
“I can’t shake this anxiety about my child, even though I’ve been assured she is safe,” said Lena Brook, of San Francisco.
“Towanga is pretty remote, and that’s one of the beauties of being there and sending your kid there in our crazy media, social media and technology-saturated world. That isolation clearly made the communication very difficult. It would have been much more comforting to all of us if we had heard earlier.”
Other parents said they were worried about how their kids would process everything.
“We pick up our kids Friday and that doesn’t leave them much time to process all that happened, including losing their beloved art counselor,” said Jen Aronowitz, whose 11-year-old boy is attending the camp.
However, Aronowitz said the camp’s staff was well prepared to handle the situation. “They have said the counselors are well trained to handle it, and I believe it.”
Sheriff’s officials did not release further details about the others’ injuries.
The camp said two of the four injured staffers were treated at hospitals and released, and two others were still receiving care.
There were about 300 campers and 150 staff at Camp Tawonga, which offers sessions for students in second through 12th grades. The camp is located on 160 lush acres on the Tuolumne River, just outside Yosemite National Park. It has been in operation since 1925, according to its website.
Brook said she wanted to hear her 10-year-old daughter’s voice for herself but wasn’t sure if it would make the situation worse.
“If I was in town right now I would seriously consider picking her up,” she said. “Even though I know she is in good hands and there is an incredible bonding and community-building opportunity in going through something like this, as parent it feels like you want to hold your kid and never let them go.”
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