Crash claims teacher, firefighter

Flames incinerated a plane that crashed in a wooded area near Oak Harbor Friday. - Christina Tercero
Flames incinerated a plane that crashed in a wooded area near Oak Harbor Friday.
— image credit: Christina Tercero

Teachers and students in Oak Harbor and firefighters in Marysville are mourning the loss of a well known Whidbey Island couple.

Ted and Karen Mathews were killed as a result of an airplane crash Friday afternoon. The couple were flying in their 1942 Stinson, a three-seat airplane, when it clipped trees, crashed to the ground and caught fire beside a wooded road behind the Bible Baptist Church south of Oak Harbor.

The Island County Sheriff’s Office reported that Ted Mathews, the pilot, was trying to land the plane at the private grass airstrip at the couple’s home when neighbors saw it sputtering in the air, then go down.

Karen died at the scene. Ted was able to crawl out of the fiery wreck, but he was badly burned. Paramedics airlifted him to Harborview Medical Center for treatment, where he died Saturday from his injuries.

The National Transportation Safety Board is investigating the cause of the accident.

The Oak Harbor School district is having a special memorial service for the Mathews this Saturday. Karen, 43, has been a teacher at Broad View Elementary for the past 14 years. Firefighters from Marysville are also taking part in the memorial. Ted, 48, was a paramedic and firefighter in the department for the past decade.

The couple’s daughter Kyla, a 22-year-old student at Western Washington University, described her folks as homebodies who loved to work together on their North Whidbey house and eight-acre hobby farm.

“They were the best parents I could have ever asked for,” she said.

Kyla said Ted was technically her stepfather; her mother married him when Kyla was 7 years old. “He became my dad,” she said. “He was definitely my dad.”

Kyla said her mother was an amazing, hard-working woman. When Kyla was little, Karen was a single mother, a teacher and a college student. “I really look up to her,” she said.

Kyla said her parents also loved to fly. Ted was the pilot, she said, and her mother was content to ride along. Their property has a grass runway strip and Ted owned several small planes over the years. The three-seater Stinson allowed the whole family to go up together.

“I loved it,” she said. “He let me fly.”

At Broad View Elementary, Karen — a fifth-grade teacher — was known for her willingness to help students and co-workers, her great sense of humor and her love of waterfowl.

A group of teachers and staff at Broad View gathered to speak about their friend and colleague.

“She has a really gentle spirit,” said Susie Ross, a para-educator who worked in Karen’s class. She said Karen never got riled at her students. She would often put her arm around a student’s shoulder to begin resolving any problem they may have.

“She had a great way of bonding with her students,” Ross said.

While she was a committed teacher, she also had a love of animals.

Pam Dunphy, an office worker at Broad View, said Karen and Ted grabbed blankets and spent several hours one day last year on a property trying to catch abandoned geese. Staff recalled how she raised geese and how proud she was that the geese would return every year.

Fourth grade teacher Liz Hubbard said she was having trouble caring for ducks in her class and Karen snuck out one day and bought duck food for Hubbard. Karen eventually took the ducks home.

Karen was known for inviting school teachers and staff to her home for picnics. Fellow teachers visited the Mathews’ home earlier this year to celebrate the renovation of their home. During the project, Ted and Karen lived out of their bedroom and entered their home using a ladder to crawl through a window.

“They did everything together,” fourth grade teacher Patty Van Dyke said.

In Marysville, firefighters remember Ted as a very knowledgeable paramedic and firefighter, and a man with a great sense of humor. Before working in Marysville, he was a firefighter and EMT in Anacortes.

“He was a very quick-witted person,” said Capt. Aaron Soper. “He was a pleasure to have around the station.”

Like Karen’s fellow teachers, many firefighters visited the Mathews’ home for picnics and gatherings. A handful of firefighters had also flown with Ted in his airplane, a hobby he often spoke about.

“We consider them both as our family,” Soper said.

At Broad View, the school district has counselors available to help students and staff deal with the deaths. The library was transformed into a care center for those how needed help. Students could draw a picture or write a note in memory of their teacher.

Principal Joyce Swanson said there were extra substitutes available if teachers needed a break during the day. Since she was a fifth-grade teacher, students at the middle schools who knew Karen were invited to drop by.

Karen started as a second-grade teacher and, over the years, she gradually went through the grades and ended up teaching fifth graders. Swanson said Karen had a special talent for teaching the older grades and helping students make the jump to middle school.

Karen earned several awards in recent years, including the Excellence of Education award last year. She also earned a Gates Grant that helped purchase several computers for her class. She was an active member of the Oak Harbor Education Association’s Political Action Team.

In the days leading up to spring break, Karen worked on a tribute to the school dog, Sophie, who died in February. She helped make a song and dance, the Hokey Sophie, to remember the beloved canine.

“She made sure everything was okay,” said Heather Watkins, a fourth-grade teacher at Broad View. “She was just so generous.”

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