A Jewish summer camp counselor from New York was killed and several others injured when a 70-foot tall black oak tree fell outside a dining hall at the camp near Yosemite National Park in northern California.
Annais Rittenberg, 21, a “beloved member of the Camp Tawonga staff,” was killed and four others injured when the massive tree toppled on the camp grounds, Camp Tawonga officials said in a letter to parents.
“I’ve lost a beautiful child through that tree,” Rittenberg’s mother, Penny Kreitzer, told the Los Angeles Times. “I wish the tree had fallen on Saturday when no one was there.”
Rittenberg attended the University of California at Santa Cruz where she was to be a senior this year, according to the campus spokesperson, NBC reported.
On her Facebook page, Rittenberg listed that she was originally from New York and had attended the prestigious Fiorello H. LaGuardia High School for the Performing Arts.
She was returning for her second straight summer as an arts counselor at Camp Tawonga, which combined her loves for photography and nature.
“This was a child who was so vibrant,” Kreitzer told the Times. “I can’t even tell you.”
A Cal Fire spokesman, Daniel Berlant, posted on Twitter that emergency crews were responding to a “mass casualty” event on Wednesday at Camp Tawonga, with 20 reported injuries, the Los Angeles Times reported.
Authorities said there was little anyone could have done to prevent the tragedy.
“There was nothing to indicate there was anything wrong with this tree,” Tuolumne County Sheriff’s Sgt. Jim Oliver told the San Jose Mercury-News. “Even to look at the existing tree trunk, there is still nothing wrong. Basically, it was a freak accident, as (far as) we can tell.”
Gregg Rubenstein, director of finance for the camp, told The Associated Press that the staff was still assessing the situation but no campers were among the injured.
That point was underscored in the email to parents with the subject in all capital letters: “EVERY CHILD AT CAMP IS FINE,” the Los Angeles Times reported.
The camp houses up to 300 children and 160 staff members, though it’s unclear how many were on the 160-acre grounds.
Campers were inside the dining hall when the tree fell, Jennifer Rosenberg, whose daughter is an employee at the camp, told the Times.
“She said it sounded like an earthquake, and then a big dust cloud,” Rosenberg said.
A press release posted to Facebook and emailed to parents identified the victim as Rittenberg.
Four other adult staffers — Lizzie Moore, Cara Sheedy, Juliet Ulibarri, and Anya Schultz — have been rushed to the hospital, and their families notified.
In the minutes following the incident, parents flocked to the camp’s Facebook page to post frantic requests for updates, angry that no email had yet been sent out.
“Please tell my daughter […] to call home so I know she is okay,” one mother wrote.
“So worried about my child and everyone up at camp,” another parent posted. “Please give us an update.”
The camp’s press released confirmed that no campers had been injured, and that counseling services would be provided.
“The campers are doing well and are participating in camp activities away from the scene,” the statement read. “Our on-site staff therapists are working closely with First Responder grief experts to help care for our community in this difficult time.”
Founded in 1925, Camp Tawonga is located near Yosemite National Park and headquartered in San Francisco. Set in the spectacular High Sierras, it is known as one of the oldest and best-established Jewish camps in California.
At Santa Cruz, Rittenberg was involved in the student-run radio station KZSC.
An adventurous type who had traveled widely, she earned a following for her love of world music, Michael Bryant, KZSC’s director, told the Santa Cruz Sentinel.
“She had a passion for a wide variety of music,” Bryant told the paper. “She had an ability to share that with other students. She was able to enlighten a lot of her peers.”
Anne Cohen is the Forward’s deputy digital media editor. When she’s not looking for the secret Jewish history of Voodoo in New Orleans, or making lists about Ruth Bader Ginsburg, she writes for The Assimilator. She graduated from the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism with an M.S. magazine concentration in 2012.