Tawonga driver believed drowned in off-duty accident

A 21-year-old employee of Camp Tawonga is missing and presumed drowned following a weekend accident above a waterfall on the Tuolumne River.

Casey Jackson, an off-duty minivan driver for the camp, was hiking with a friend, Dena Stem, 19, along a steep gorge outside the camp on Saturday when she fell more than 20 feet to the river below.

Spotting Jackson face down in the water, Stem climbed down to attempt a rescue. She was unable to locate Jackson. Hurting her forehead on a rock during the rescue attempt, she then hiked upstream, where she alerted Camp Tawonga staffers, who immediately contacted local search and rescue authorities. Stem, who is also an employee at Tawonga, is safe and back at work.

For three days, rescue teams scoured the area but were unable to locate Jackson. A large-scale multi-agency effort involved scuba divers, search dogs, helicopters and ground crews.

Said Tuolumne County Sheriff Lt. John Steely: "We had divers in the water checking every pool. There is one area we can't dive in, but a swift water diver will be going in within the next 10 days. We're sure she's in the water."

Tawonga staff mobilized immediately after word of the accident. A camp rescue team was dispatched to the site, as was a U.S. Forest Service search and rescue team and a California Highway Patrol helicopter.

By Sunday morning, recovery efforts had been turned over to the Tuolumne County Sheriff Department. Stanislaus County Underwater Search and Rescue, California Rescue Dog Association also assisted.

In a written statement, Tawonga Director Ken Kramarz, who noted that the site of the accident was "not a place where we take campers," explained how camp staff helped campers cope with the tragedy.

"At dinner, I explained to the children that one of our staff had fallen off a waterfall and that all these people were helping to search for her. I reminded them that we had just learned about the meaning of prayer that morning at our Torah service and suggested that this was a good time to add our prayers for Casey's safe return."

Counselors remained in the bunks with campers an extra hour after bedtime and convened a special staff meeting at 11 p.m. that day. Unit heads recorded the emotional condition of every camper, which ranged from "sad and teary, to concerned, to anxiety that their last week of camp would be spoiled."

Kramarz's statement continued: "All camp programs have been running normally since then, to the credit of our 160 amazingly talented and dedicated staff members. In all of my 23 years here, I cannot recall a time I have felt greater pride in the work these wonderful young people do for our children."

Rabbi Sydney Mintz of San Francisco's Congregation Emanu-El was in residence at camp at the time of the accident, providing pastoral care for children and staff until professional grief therapists Mary Tarbell-Green and Larry Isaacs arrived Sunday morning to meet with children and staff.

"Our hearts go out to Casey's family," said Kramarz. "Her father, Keith, drove up to camp from the L.A. area and spent all of Sunday with us, meeting Casey's friends and hiking to the falls. At the end he said, 'I can see why Casey loved this place so much.' He has since driven back home, awaiting — as do we — final word about Casey."

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.