REPORT: Fire Kills Six Family Members, Pastor Allegedly Ran Back Into Blaze To Rescue Grandchildren

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John Oyewale Contributor
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A fire at a vacation rental property Sunday in Wisconsin’s upper Midwest killed six family members — including the family’s patriarch, a missionary who allegedly tried unsuccessfully to save his trapped granddaughters, according to a local report.

Juneau County Sheriff’s Office (JCSO) deputies responding to the house fire in Necedah at approximately 2:35 a.m. found the home “engulfed in flames,” according to a JCSO press release. The Necedah and New Lisbon Fire Departments and the Mauston Area Ambulance also rushed to the incident.

Some individuals in the residence’s driveway, all of whom the deputies shepherded to safety, told the deputies that five people were unaccounted for, according to the JCSO. Shortly afterward, a sixth person also became unaccounted for. Despite the firefighters’ three-odd-hour effort to put out the blaze, all six individuals “perished.” (RELATED: Video Shows Cop Rush Into Burning Apartment, Save Elderly Man)

Pastor Steve Witte was the sixth person, according to WLUK FOX 11. He was home resting from missionary work as the lead of the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod (WELS) Asia Missions Team, Pastor Larry Schlomer — reportedly a neighbor and longtime friend of Witte’s — told the outlet.

“He had actually made it out of the house and found out that two of his granddaughters were still inside and [he] went back in to see if he could save them, and unfortunately did not make it,” Schlomer told the outlet.

The loss of so many from one family was “such a tremendous loss” and “just very unfortunate,” Schlomer reportedly said.

“We heard kids playing all day in the pool next door and it’s too bad, too bad,” Ken Zielinski, another neighbor, told the outlet.

The JCSO identified Witte as one of the victims, listing him as as Steven Lance Witte, 66, according to an update. They also identified the other five victims as Charis Anne Kuehl, 38; Lydia Marie Witte, 35; and three juveniles aged eight, five, and two.

The two other adult victims were Witte’s daughters and the three juveniles were his granddaughters, according to WLUK FOX 11.

Lydia Marie Witte reportedly worked for the Wisconsin-based Native American tribe Oneida Nation.

“Lydia was a staff attorney of the Nation and a strong ally who represented the interests of the Nation, its families, and its children,” Oneida Nation reportedly told WLUK FOX 11. “There are no words to adequately convey how much Lydia’s colleagues will miss her. We offer our heartfelt condolences to Lydia’s family and loved ones.”

A $75,000 GoFundMe campaign to support Charis Anne Kuehl’s surviving daughters Norah and Vera and her husband Steve has raised $130,662 as of the time of this report. The campaign identified the five-year-old victim as Stella, Kuehl’s daughter. The surviving Kuehls reportedly escaped the fire.

The other two juvenile victims were Lena and Merci Henselin, daughters of Witte’s only surviving daughter Hannah, according to WLUK FOX 11.

“That our God is good, is not in doubt. But at moments like this it is difficult to understand the ways of God,” the Wisconsin-based Lutheran church St. Mark Ministries, wrote concerning the death of the young Henselins, whose parents are the church’s partners. “Our hearts grieve for the Henselins even while we hold on to resurrection hope. We pray that Jesus might come quickly to usher in his New Heavens and New Earth.”

The fire “appears to be accidental,” but the Wisconsin Department of Justice/State Fire Marshal has begun investigating it, the JCSO said.