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UC Santa Cruz student killed by falling tree near Yosemite

Yosemite National Park

A summer camp counselor was killed and four others were hurt Wednesday outside Yosemite National Park when a tree fell onto a campfire circle, officials said.

About 8:30 a.m., a 3- to 4-foot-wide oak toppled onto a bench and campfire circle outside of the dining hall around breakfast time at Camp Tawonga.

Annais Rittenberg, 21, an art counselor at the camp, was killed.

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

The emergency initially went out as a “mass casualty incident” with 20 injured and sparked a panic among the parents of children at Camp Tawonga, a 160-acre Jewish youth camp set in the middle fork of the Tuolumne River in the Stanislaus National Forest outside of Yosemite National Park.

Parents and media members flooded the camp and Tuolumne County Sheriff’s Department phone lines with calls. The area has virtually no phone reception and campers aren’t allowed to have cellphones, parents and former counselors said.

The communication blackout led some parents to fear the worst. Others, such as Kreitzer, were praying for the best.

Kreitzer recalled hoping that her daughter was in the art room, away from where news reports indicated a falling tree.

She 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.”

The tree knocked down power lines when it fell, knocking out power and forcing the camp to rely on backup generators Wednesday. Parents had to call the camp’s corporate offices in San Francisco for what little information was available.

Then, shortly after 1 p.m., the camp informed parents that no children were injured, a point underscored in the email to parents with the subject line in all capital letters: “EVERY CHILD AT CAMP IS FINE.”

The letter stated that campers were continuing on with their day as firefighters and U.S. Forest Service park rangers were working to remove the tree. Children at the camp attend second to 12th grade.

“The campers are doing well and are participating in camp activities away from the scene,” Tawonga Executive Director Ken Kramarz said in the email to parents. “Our on-site staff therapists are working closely with First Responders grief experts to help care for our community in this difficult time.”

Four other camp employees -- Lizzie Moore, Cara Sheedy, Juliet Ulibarri and Anya Schultz -- were hurt and taken to hospitals.

A strong bond develops between the campers and counselors, said Lena Brook, who has a 10-year-old daughter at Tawonga.

“Those counselors are the avatars for parents,” she said. “They’re standing out as role models. They’re where the kids go to help navigate disputes, the whole range of emotions campers experience.”

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.

Reached by phone Wednesday, her mother lamented that she'd not heard about her daughter's most recent adventure: a hiking trip to the top of Mount Lyell, the highest peak in Yosemite National Park.

Campers were inside the dining hall when the tree fell, said Jennifer Rosenberg, whose daughter is an employee at the camp.

“She said it sounded like an earthquake,” Rosenberg said. “And then a big dust cloud.”

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joseph.serna@latimes.com

matt.hamilton@latimes.com

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