Annais Rittenberg loved life.
Friends and family say they rarely saw the 21-year-old without a smile or sporting a hat. “She was joyous and she was funky, and she always thought out of the box,” Annais’ mother Penny Kreitzer said.
That independent spirit drew her to teach art to campers at Camp Tawonga, a summer camp near Yosemite filled with huge old trees. One of those trees, an 80-foot tall, 300 year old black oak, fell at 8:25 a.m. on July 3rd, 2013. The tree struck Annais, killing her almost instantly. Three other camp staffers suffered injuries.
At the time of the accident, the Toulumne County Sheriff’s Department called it a freak accident and a Cal OSHA Report called it an "Act of Nature."
Camp Tawonga also used that explanation when it sent an email to parents saying a tree “spontaneously fell on the campfire circle.”
But the NBC Bay Area Investigative Unit reviewed thousands of pages of legal documents that indicate camp leaders were reluctant to trim and remove trees. In fact, camp leaders had been warned about the oak that killed Annais as far back as 2006.
That’s when the camp hired independent arborist Denice Britton to inspect several trees on the camp’s property, including the black oak that crushed Annais in 2013. In that report, she wrote, “this tree shows fair to poor vigor, with dead branches up to 3 inches in diameter.” She did “not consider it a high priority for removal” but recommended “pruning to thin the outer canopy…in the next year or two.”
In 2010, Britton inspected the tree again and recommend the camp “monitor the trees approximately every 18 months.” Records provided by the camp do not show Britton conducted any other inspections.
PG&E also hired independent arborists who recommended pruning and removing trees near power lines at the camp. Internal PG&E documents reveal that as far back as 2002, the camp refused to do much of the maintenance arborists recommended. “Customer does not want trees removed or made safe,” reads one report.
“We couldn’t take legal action against the camp because my daughter and her friends were counselors and they signed a release with workman’s compensation,” said Kreitzer. Annais’ family could not sue the camp, but her parents filed a lawsuit against Britton, PG&E, and companies PG&E hired to inspect trees near power lines.
“There was a terrible thing that happened at Camp Tawonga and I have reason to believe it could have been avoided,” Annais’ father Mark Rittenberg said.
Just six months before the tree fell—a subcontractor hired by PG&Esays he tried to warn the camp’s executive director, Ken Kramarz.
Arborist David Isaacs testified in a deposition that he told Kramarz he was concerned about the tree. “I felt I had a moral obligation to say something to somebody at the camp that if that tree was in my backyard and my kid’s swing set was underneath there, that I wouldn’t want the swing there,” Isaacs testified.
The Investigative Unit contacted Camp Tawonga multiple times for an on-camera interview. No one from the camp ever responded, but executive director Ken Kramarz defended the camp’s stance on the trees during four days of deposition. He testified that “removal was never suggested or considered.”
The NBC Investigative Unit also reached out to former camp leaders and current staff to ask if they still have concerns about the trees at Camp Tawonga. They all declined to speak on the record. “In Annais’ name and legacy, don’t be afraid to tell the truth. Don’t be afraid to speak out even if it seems as if all odds are against you,” Kreitzer said.
Annais’ parents settled the lawsuit. They say they don’t want the camp shut down, but want new leadership and a focus on safety at the camp.