Worker mourned after tree falls at camp near Yosemite

naustin@modbee.comJuly 3, 2013 

  • ABOUT THE REPORTER
    alternate textNan Austin
    Title: Education reporter
    Coverage areas: K-12 education, Yosemite Community College District
    Bio: Nan Austin has been a copy editor and reporter at The Modesto Bee for 24 years. She has an economics degree from CSU Stanislaus and previously worked at the Merced Sun-Star and Turlock Journal.
    Recent stories written by Nan
    On Twitter: @nanaustin
    E-mail: naustin@modbee.com

— One staff member was killed and four injured at Camp Tawonga when a tree fell beside the camp dining hall Wednesday morning. The roughly 250 third- through ninth-grade campers were inside the hall eating breakfast and none were injured, officials said.

A letter from Executive Director Ken Kramarz sent to families and staff members says staff member Annais Rittenberg died and names Lizzie Moore, Cara Sheedy, Juliet Ulibarri and Anya Schultz as the four injured adults.

Two staff members had minor injuries at the camp east of Groveland. Sheedy was taken by air ambulance to Memorial Medical Center in Modesto. Her condition Wednesday evening was listed as good, spokesman Craig Baize said. Moore was transported to Doctors Medical Center and was listed in good condition, a hospital spokeswoman said.

The tree fell about 8:30 a.m., according to Dennis Mathisen, a California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection spokesman. One air ambulance arrived along with multiple rescue vehicles, he said.

By Wednesday afternoon, camp activities had resumed, keeping children away from the scene, Kramarz said. "Our on-site staff therapists are working closely with First Responder grief experts to help care for our community in this difficult time," the letter says.

Electrical service was interrupted when the tree hit a Pacific Gas & Electric Co. line, but the camp's emergency generators were working and repairs were under way by afternoon.

In operation since 1925

Camp Tawonga sits on the middle fork of the Tuol-umne River on 160 acres in the Stanislaus National Forest. Wooden buildings nestle in a clearing among pines and oaks, about 10 miles up Mather Road from Groveland. The camp lies at 3,800 feet elevation, at the edge of Yosemite National Park.

The camp has been in operation since 1925, serving the Bay Area Jewish community. Its 15 year-round employees and 160 summer staff members include third-generation campers, according to the Camp Tawonga website.

Former staff member Jen Solomon was among those who got the letter, which also was posted on the Camp Tawonga Facebook page. Her daughter, a second-grader, took part in the camp session that ended a week and a half ago.

Looking at posted pictures of the site, Solomon said it looked as if the tree missed the large, A-frame dining hall altogether. "It's only by a stroke of God; they were all eating and probably didn't even witness it," she said.

Although the campfire area is only steps from the building, a lounge area is closest to it and campers would have been eating at tables farther away.

Benches at the campfire circle are now missing, she said. "It's just shocking. You see the foosball table — it's untouched," Solomon said. The campfire area holds evening activities and serves as a staff meeting area to plan the day's crafts and hikes. The 40 or so camp counselors would have been in the hall with their kids, she said.

"It's an amazing camp in a beautiful setting that offers backpacking in Yosemite, day hikes, swimming, 'ga ga' (Israeli dodgeball), arts and crafts, archery, gardening," Sol-omon said. "Everybody works there in college. It's the best job of all."

Solomon said she worked there starting in 1992 and knew of no major incidents then or since. "They take safety very, very seriously there," she said.

The San Francisco-based Jewish camp had 250 third- through ninth-graders in their second week of activities. Last night was song night at the dining hall, according to social media posts that show smiling faces in a large, airy building.

Bee education reporter Nan Austin can be reached at naustin@modbee.com or (209) 578-2339.

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