Camp Tawonga Tree Incident Update
Dear Fellow Tawongans,
A Bay Area TV station broadcast a story on May 11th that included misleading claims regarding the July 3, 2013 incident at Camp Tawonga, when an oak tree spontaneously fell and took the life of beloved staff member Annais Rittenberg.
The tragedy deeply saddened the Camp Tawonga community, and our thoughts are with her family every day.
We want to reassure all of you that safety is and always has been our absolute highest priority. As you know, every individual’s physical and emotional well-being at camp is of paramount importance to us. This is how Tawonga has become a national leader in the field of emergency preparedness and response and why–for 90 years–parents have trusted us with their children. In every part of our training, programming, and supervision of camp, we embody “safety first.”
As we strive for transparency and openness as a community, we want to clarify factual inaccuracies in the recent broadcast. Every recommendation about the tree in question was followed.
The trees at Camp Tawonga are routinely inspected by certified arborists, and we have consistently followed recommendations for their maintenance and removal. In spite of this vigilance, a tree did spontaneously fall. Tuolumne County Sheriff Sgt. Jim Oliver was one of the first responders on the scene and he concluded: “There was nothing to indicate there was anything wrong with this tree. Even to look at the existing tree trunk, there is still nothing wrong. Basically, it was a freak accident, as we can tell.”
Since the 2013 incident, we have gone above and beyond due diligence regarding tree maintenance to ensure camp is safe. Our protocols include the following:
- Two new teams of arborists inspect the safety of more than 6,000 trees at camp every year before camping season, in which trees are physically tagged and closely monitored.
- Camp follows every management direction regarding tree safety.
- Camp takes the most conservative recommendation for removing potentially unsafe trees whenever there is a difference of opinion between arborists.
The official government agency responsible for investigating this tragic incident was CAL/OSHA. CAL/OSHA Safety Engineer Raymond Smith came to camp on July 3rd, and on October 17, 2013 issued an official notice which stated: “It has been determined that no standard, rule, order or regulation set forth in Title 8, California Code of Regulations, and Division 5 of the California Labor Code, has been violated.”
Tawonga’s response on July 3rd saved lives.
On July 3rd, the oak tree fell during breakfast. All of the campers and the majority of the staff were in the Dining Hall. Approximately 25 staff were outside near the tree eating breakfast. At 8:25 a.m., there was a very loud cracking noise as the massive oak tree fell. Five of our staff were struck by the falling tree, including Annais. Of the four other staff members who were struck, two were seriously injured. The two injured staff were saved by the swift and courageous response of their fellow Tawonga staff members.
Within minutes, CAL FIRE, the Forest Service and Yosemite Rangers arrived on scene in response to our 911 call. Those four staff were ready to be evacuated by helicopter and ambulance. All but one have returned to work at Tawonga.
The entire governmental response, which included 75 uniformed responders, was led by Incident Commander Keven Patton, CAL FIRE Battalion Chief. In reviewing the incident, Chief Patton wrote to Tawonga: “Your staff did an outstanding job handling a tragic event and it was evident to me that they must train for emergency situations regularly.”
We are grateful for the continuous support of our community.
Throughout this difficult and painful experience, we have received the most generous and loving support from every segment of the community. As current Board President Ilana Drummond writes: “The Camp Tawonga Board has reviewed the incident and how it was handled. While deeply saddened by this tragedy, we are fully supportive of how our staff responded, keeping children and staff physically and emotionally safe at all times. We applaud their extraordinary efforts and stand behind them 100%.”
Finally, we want you to remember that we, our spouses, and our children all come to Camp Tawonga every summer. We are completely confident our loved ones are safe at camp, and there is no place we would rather be than Camp Tawonga.
For more information:
If you have any questions at all, please contact us at Jamie@tawonga.org or Ken@tawonga.org. We can both be reached at (415) 543-2267. We want you to feel fully informed, so if there is more information to share on this matter, we will post it on our Facebook page.
In the bond of Tawongans,