Pastor dies in house fire that killed six family members after running back inside to save grandchildren

A Wisconsin pastor died in a devastating house fire that killed six family members on Sunday after he ran back inside the burning building to try and save his grandchildren.

The fire — which authorities believe was an accident — broke out overnight, engulfing the vacation rental near the Wisconsin Dells in flames. Pastor Steve Witte made it out safely, only to discover that two of his granddaughters were still inside, his longtime friend, Pastor Larry Schlomer, told WMTV.

“He went back in seeing if he could save them and unfortunately did not make it,” he added.

The Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod and the local Beautiful Savoir Lutheran Church in Green Bay, Wisconsin, confirmed that Witte and five of his family members died in the house fire. The five others were identified as Lydia Witte, Charis Kuehl, Stella Kuehl, Lena Henselin, and Merci Henselin.

Lydia Witte and Charis Kuehl were the pastor’s daughters, while Stella Kuehl was Charis’ daughter and the pastor’s granddaughter. Lena and Merci Henselin were also the pastor’s granddaughters, WELS states.

“By God’s grace, a number of other family members survived,” WELS President Mark Schroeder said in a statement. “The pain of losing six members of one family cannot be described with words.”

“On behalf of our entire synod, I want to assure these families that they are in our prayers,” he added. “We pray that God will remind them of his grace and promises and bring healing to them. We pray that he will continue to help them to hold on to his assurance that he will never leave them or forsake them.”

Witte was a pastor at various Lutheran churches in Wisconsin, but in recent years has been serving overseas in southeast Asia, Mike Pfeifer, a staff minister at WELS, told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

The Beautiful Saviour Lutheran Church said that Steve and Mary Witte were on furlough and were holding a family get-together near Necedah when the fire broke out during the night.

“The Epistle reading for this week contained Paul’s words that he was ‘perplexed, but not in despair,’” the church wrote. “There are times when what God allows is perplexing.”

Schlomer told WMTV that the family had gathered to enjoy some time together while Pastor Witte was back from his missionary work.

“His wife, Mary, his children, those were so important,” he said. “His passion for the gospel, for the Good News about hope for eternity, is something that drove him to do everything that he did.”

The Juneau County Sheriff’s Office said that they were called to a house fire with two or three people trapped inside around 2:35 a.m. on Sunday. When the first responders arrived, they saw the Necedah house fully engulfed in flames and found several people in the driveway.

While escorting them away from the burning house, the survivors said that six people were still unaccounted for — three adults and three children. It took three hours for firefighters to extinguish the blaze.

WELS Christian Aid and Relief said they are offering counselling to any family member, church co-worker, or any members from impacted congregations where the family worshiped or served.