On July 3, 2013, a huge oak branch hanging over a public area – where children gathered several times per day – came crashing down, demolishing everything under its target area. Annais was the only fatality. Camp Tawonga has a very strong safety record. Ken Kramarz is a “nationally recognized expert in child safety” for camps throughout the U.S., including Jewish Community Center camps.
But as the evidence clearly shows, from internal emails and sworn depositions, the camp often resisted safety warnings and recommendations with regard to trees.
Read the evidence here. Note that documents can be verified in the San Francisco Superior court.
Document 1a & Document 1b & Document 1c: In June 2011 and again in April 2012, camp directors Jamie Simon-Harris and Becca Meyer email Kramarz, urging him that Denice Britton, the camp’s certified arborist, be brought back for an inspection. Britton had last inspected the trees in 2006, recommending that she return every 18 months, but didn’t hear back from the camp until 2010. After that inspection, then-camp director Adam Weisberg told Britton she would be brought back every 12-18 months. Yet despite Meyer’s and Simon-Harris’ urging, and Kramarz responding that he would take the lead, he didn’t schedule Britton’s next inspection until July 5, 2013, two days after the branch that killed Annais fell.
As Simon-Harris writes in April 2012: “[Britton] made a recommendation that every 18 months an arborist check out the oak trees. I think for risk management we should follow that recommendation.”
Document 2a & Document 2b: Excerpt of Kramarz’s deposition responding to why he didn’t bring Britton in for an inspection despite urging from Meyer and Simon-Harris. Kramarz says he “can’t recall” whether he called an arborist to inspect trees, although he could have looked up receipts to prepare for his deposition. Records show no arborist inspected the area until PG&E arborist David Isaacs on December 28, 2012.
In another excerpt, Kramarz states he “can’t recall” whether he contacted Britton in 2012 for an inspection, whether he scheduled any arborist for an inspection in 2012 or whether any arborist other than Isaacs came to the camp that year.
Document 3: Excerpt of Isaacs’ deposition about his 2012 inspection at Tawonga alongside Kramarz. Isaacs could find no health issues with the trees, but he recounts having a “moral obligation” to voice his concern about the large oaks near the fire circle seating area, where children gathered multiple times a day. Asked in his deposition if he viewed these trees as a hazard to people, Isaacs replied that he did.
Although Isaacs could not demand work on the trees based on PG&E’s code, he didn’t feel comfortable with “those trees being that near to the seating area.”
Document 4: An August 2013 email from Deborah Newbrun, the former executive director of Camp Tawonga, to Kramarz. Newbrun was very concerned after the limb killed Annais because Kramarz had made it so difficult for her to take down trees during her tenure as Tawonga’s leader. She writes that Tawonga board members also knew about his resistance.
Newbrun, clearly distressed after Annais’ death, writes that she asked Simon-Harris whether Britton had checked the trees before the summer started. Simon-Harris told Newbrun that Kramarz had told her that he indeed brought back Britton before the summer. But records show Kramarz only scheduled Britton to return at the very end of the second summer session.
Document 5:A longer email from Newbrun to Kramarz and then-Tawonga board chair Steve Catechi, in which she writes how upset she was after the accident. It caused her to recall how difficult Kramarz had made it for her to take down trees, even naming a stump after her, which caused her grief.
Document 6a & Document 6b & Document 6c: Excerpts from the deposition of Mark Patton, the longtime tree-trimmer at the camp and a certified arborist since 2010. Patton testifies that Kramarz and other camp leaders “questioned almost every decision and resisted any recommendation to remove any tree.” Patton also testifies that even in terms of fire safety, the camp resisted “the thinning projects that I talked about.”
Document 7: Denice Britton’s letter to Ken Kramarz following her July 5, 2013, inspection. Britton refers to her initial recommendation of yearly tree inspections (which camp leadership didn’t follow) and how much these inspections are needed with so many “very old and defective trees around the camp.” Britton also explains the factors that go into black oak tree failings and the need to keep trees safe through “judicious arboricultural treatments.”
Document 8: Excerpt from Kramarz’s deposition in which he recounts Britton’s opinion of why the oak tree failed. Namely, the weather pattern that included unseasonable rain followed by extreme heat. This failure is known as “Summer Branch Drop.” See articles “Danger in the Beauty Above” and “Sudden Branch Drop.”
Document 9: A letter from PG&E claims supervisor Hal Smeltzer to Kramarz. Smeltzer refers to the fallen tree limb being cut up and removed before PG&E’s arborist could arrive for an inspection on July 4, 2013. Smeltzer reminds Kramarz that all tree materials constitute evidence and must not be “altered in any way before all interested parties have had an opportunity to examine it.”
Document 10: Excerpt from deposition of arborist Joseph McNeil, who investigated at the camp on Britton’s behalf. McNeil refers to a missing 5 ½ to 6-foot section from the compression side of the failed tree limb that couldn’t be located. Steve Catechi had said the section would be on the wood pile, but it was not. Without this section, McNeil couldn’t determine if a characteristic on the compression side of the tree caused its failure.
Where did this piece go?
Document 11: Jamie Simon-Harris’ talking points list for media interviews after Annais was killed. The incident timeline refers to Annais’ body being identified at 12:45 p.m. on July 3. Simon-Harris and other camp staff present told Annais’ mother, Penny Kreitzer, that they knew Annais was the one fatality almost immediately after the limb fell at 8:25 a.m.
Simon-Harris notes that the camp called all families of Session II campers on July 4, 2013. But the camp didn’t call Annais’ father or brother until July 5. Annais’ brother had left his number at the camp’s San Francisco and Groveland offices on July 3.