‘She was just full of life’: Longtime Eagle River teacher dies while diving in Whittier

Sara Mason spent her last few hours in a place that she loved.

“If there were two places where her heart was just most at peace and happy, it was in the mountains and in the water. She just had a deep love for wild places,” Brian Mason, her husband, said Tuesday.

The 45-year-old from Eagle River died Sunday while scuba diving in Whittier. She reportedly stopped breathing while in the water at Smitty’s Cove, the Whittier Police Department said.

Sara Mason was a longtime teacher at Fire Lake Elementary in Eagle River, where she taught multiple grades over nearly two decades, and left a lasting impact on her students and her colleagues.

In interviews, friends and family described Mason as a remarkable person who loved adventuring with her family and was a devoted teacher and mother.

She had two sons, Silas and Sterling Mason, ages 14 and 12.

“I know every parent loves their kids, but she deeply loved her kids, she deeply loved spending time with them,” Brian Mason said.


Usually, that time was spent outdoors.

“She raised our kids on the water and in the mountains and in tents and I mean, we’re both teachers, and there were some summers where we spent more time in tents than we did in our beds at home,” Brian Mason said.

Smitty’s Cove, accessible from Whittier on the shores of Prince William Sound just east of the harbor, is a popular winter diving location.

Whittier police said they received a call for assistance just after noon Sunday from someone who said they were scuba diving with Mason when she stopped breathing.

Officers arrived four minutes later, found Mason unresponsive and administered CPR while they waited for paramedics, police said. Mason was declared dead an hour and 20 minutes after lifesaving measures started.

An autopsy report is pending, Whittier public safety director Andre Achee said Tuesday.

Mason had received a scuba diving certification from the Professional Association of Diving Instructors, Achee said, and was diving recreationally with one other person.

Emily Craver, owner of Last Frontier Diving & Adventures in Anchorage, said Mason’s death was the first diving-related fatality in Whittier she knew of in her 18 years scuba diving in Alaska.

Smitty’s Cove is the most active dive site in Alaska, and is particularly popular in the winter because of its excellent visibility, stunning biodiversity and easy access, she said.

Fire Lake Elementary families received an email this week from principal Daniel Salazar offering support from the school district’s crisis team for students.

“Mrs. Mason has been at Fire Lake for many years and has been a beloved member of our school community during this time,” Salazar wrote. “She was adored by her colleagues and students alike. Our thoughts are with her family.”

As a teacher, Mason was creative, kind and patient, said her friend and fellow teacher at Fire Lake, Kara Freeborn.

“Any time her students had a good day, she would personally go out to the cars in the parking lot and tell the parents that they had a wonderful day,” Freeborn said.

Every Halloween, Mason dressed as a mad scientist, “with a big, puffy white Einstein wig,” she said. Then, for the rest of the day, she set aside the curriculum to have students immerse themselves in science experiments.

“She was just full of life,” Freeborn said. “I could always hear her coming down the hall in her clunky, high shoes. And she had an extremely unique laugh — I could always hear her laughing, and I always knew who it was.”

It was a Santa Claus laugh, Freeborn said.

Mason and Freeborn floated the Kenai River together a few times. Mason was “such a mom” even there, even with no children around, Freeborn said. She’d make food and special drinks and was always handy with Band-Aids and aspirin and a “perfectly packed” Yeti cooler coated with stickers.


At home, it was Mason’s children who came first, Freeborn said.

“She always bragged about them, and said how beautiful they were and how adventurous they were,” she said.

Now, in the days after Mason’s death, friends are asking how they can help.

“And I’m like, we have to continue Sara’s adventures with her children,” Freeborn said. “I think that’s what they need the most.”

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Annie Berman

Annie Berman covers health care for the Anchorage Daily News. She's a fellow with Report for America, and is a graduate of the University of California Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism. A veteran of AmeriCorps and Vista volunteer programs, she's previously reported for Mission Local and KQED in the Bay Area.