Camp Tawonga

The entrance to Camp Tawonga in Groveland on Wednesday. Camp employee Annais Rittenberg was killed when a tree fell near the camp's dining hall. (Maggie Beck / Associated Press / July 3, 2013)

Annais Rittenberg was excited to be coming home this weekend for a two-day break.

There were a few days left in the first session at Camp Tawonga, a summer camp near Yosemite National Park where Rittenberg worked.

But Rittenberg, 21, was tragically killed Wednesday after a tree "spontaneously fell" outside the camp's dining hall about 8:30 a.m., according to police and camp officials. Four staff members were also injured, but no campers were harmed.

"I’ve lost a beautiful child through that tree," said Rittenberg's mother, Penny Kreitzer, reached by phone Wednesday. "I wish the tree had fallen on Saturday when no one was there."

Rittenberg returned for her second summer to Camp Tawonga, a Jewish-identified summer camp, where she worked as an art counselor.

Rather than sleep in a cabin, her mother said, she set up her own tent — outfitting it with books and a hammock. Kreitzer said her daughter was entering her senior year at UC Santa Cruz, and was majoring in environmental conservation.

After graduation, Rittenberg wanted to pursue a career involving nature and possibly photography. Kreitzer likened her daughter to Jane Goodall, equally adventurous and curious. Rittenberg had journeyed to South Africa and had worked with injured animals, and during the last three quarters at UC Santa Cruz had performed field work in Big Sur.

Her mother said that when news broke of an accident at the camp, she hoped that her daughter was in the art room, away from where news reports indicated a tree had fallen.

Kreitzer said she called local hospitals and camp offices to see if her daughter was safe. When hospitals said no patients matched her daughter's name, she became less anxious.

"I started to have hope," Kreitzer said.

She eventually learned of her daughter's death from a law enforcement official — not a camp representative — and she said the camp's response to the situation was "appalling."

Rittenberg is survived by a brother, her parents, and numerous friends, according to her mother. She was a graduate of Fiorello H. LaGuardia High School of Music & Art and Performing Arts in New York City.

Kreitzer said she was expecting her daughter to call tomorrow, and lamented that she would not hear about her daughter's most recent adventure: a hiking trip to the summit of Mount Lyell, the highest peak in Yosemite National Park.

"This was a child who was so vibrant," Kreitzer said.

"I can’t even tell you."

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Twitter: @mattthamiltonn

matthew.hamilton@latimes.com