There was no way to know that a tree limb responsible for fatally injuring a 14-year-old girl at Emma Kaufmann Camp on Thursday, July 23, was about to break, a tree specialist has said.
An arborist, who inspected the tree at the West Virginia camp reportedly reaffirmed to EKC officials that the death was accidental.
“The arborist had indicated that there was nothing in that tree that would indicate it was in any danger of falling,” said Brian Schreiber, president and CEO of the Jewish Community Center of Greater Pittsburgh, which owns the camp. “It was a healthy tree and a healthy limb; it was a freak accident.”
Nevertheless, a dozen trees have been removed from the Teen Village area, where the accident occurred “per his (the arborist’s) recommendation,” EKC Director Sam Bloom wrote in an e-mail Monday to families of the campers. Schreiber called the tree removal “a precautionary measure.”
EKC mourned the loss this weekend of camper Leah Blum, who died when a tree fell in the Teen Village, collapsing on the porch of where Leah was standing. Two girls inside the tent at the time were not injured.
After the accident, the EKC teens slept in the Field House. They returned to their tents Monday evening.
“After consultations with a number of mental health professionals both within and outside the EKC community, and after discussions with the Teen campers and staff,” Bloom wrote in his e-mail, “we concur with their recommendation that it is very important for the teens to return to their own space and sleep in the Village.”
Funeral services for Blum were held Sunday at Temple Emanuel of South Hills. Rabbi Mark Mahler spoke at the service, which was attended by hundreds of people, including several campers and counselors who were bused up from EKC.
“Leah loved her family,” Mahler said in his eulogy. “She loved her mother Karin and her father Jeff. She loved her brother Nick. She loved all her aunts, uncles and cousins. She loved her grandparents. And Leah’s family returned that love to Leah, measure for measure.
“Leah wrote an essay for school about her Poppa, Bob, a biography of his life, an account of his values, and a song of praise and gratitude for his love for her and her love for him,” Mahler continued. “Leah received an A from her teacher and an A++ from her Poppa. Leah’s essay is a perfect symbol of her love for all of her grandparents — Donna and Irene along with Bob — and their love for her.”
The EKC staff moved quickly to resume normal activities for the 380 campers following the accident.
“The camp is not going to be abbreviated in any way,” Schreiber said. “And if you look at the literature of other camps that have experienced tragedies, they strongly encourage [camps] to resume normal activities as quickly as possible.”
Jonah Geller, executive director of Tamarack Camps in Michigan, described a similar tragedy three years earlier when a tree fell and struck the tent of Jeffrey Grey, then director of Camp Kennedy, one of the agency’s outpost camps, while the group was on a camping trip in Ontario, Canada.
As a memorial, the camp erected a campfire circle – Jeffs Circle – which serves as a meeting place for a variety of activities. Geller said Greys family wanted an active memorial that would become part of the camp culture, not just a plaque or statue.
“It’s incumbent upon the family and JCC and EKC to find a way to memorialize this young child in a way that’s comfortable for everyone,” said Geller, a Pittsburgh native and EKC alumnus (he used to be known as Jonah Falek). “Whatever it is, that’s what I would recommend.”
Grief counselors from the Jewish Family & Children’s Service will remain at EKC for the final two weeks of the session, Bloom said in his e-mail.
Schreiber said the grief counselors are informally interacting with the campers and staff, “red flagging children that may have particular issues so we can follow up with parents, but they are not doing therapy with kids.”
As Dr. Josh Bernstein, one of the grief counselors, reportedly said, “This is a tragedy, not a crisis.”
(Lee Chottiner can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)