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

A fire at a vacation rental in north-central Wisconsin on Sunday killed six members of a family, including the missionary family head who reportedly tried unsuccessfully to save his trapped granddaughters, according to local reports.

Juneau County Sheriff's Office (JCSO) deputies responded to a house fire in Necedah around 2:35 a.m. and found the home “engulfed in flames.” JCSO press releaseThe Necedah and New Lisbon Fire Departments and Mauston Area Emergency Services also responded to the scene.

According to JCSO, several people in the driveway of the home led officers to safety and told them five people were missing. A sixth person was also missing shortly thereafter. All six were “deceased,” despite firefighters working to extinguish the blaze for more than three hours. (RELATED: Video shows officers bursting into burning apartment to rescue elderly man)

Pastor Steve Witte was the sixth. according to WLUK FOX 11. Pastor Larry Schlomer, leader of the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Church (WELS) Asia Mission Team (reportedly a neighbor and longtime friend of Witte's), told the outlet that Witte was taking a break from missionary work and resting at home.

“He actually escaped the house and found out his two granddaughters were still in the house. [he] “We went back to see if we could save them, but unfortunately we were unable to,” Schlomer told the outlet.

Schlomer was quoted as saying it was a “huge loss” and “deeply sad” that so many people from one family had died.

“You can hear the kids playing in the pool next door all day long. It's just a shame,” another neighbor, Ken Zielinski, told the outlet.

JCSO identified Witte as one of the victims, listing him as 66-year-old Steven Lance Witte. updateThe five other victims were identified as Charis Ann Kuhl, 38, Lydia Marie Witte, 35, and three minors aged 8, 5 and 2.

The two other adult victims were Witte's daughters and the three minor victims were his granddaughters, WLUK FOX 11 reported.

Lydia Marie Witte reportedly worked for the Oneida, a Native American tribe based in Wisconsin.

“Lydia was the Nation's exclusive attorney and a strong ally representing the interests of the Nation, its family and children,” Oneida Nation was quoted as saying by WLUK FOX 11. “Words cannot express how much Lydia will be missed by her colleagues. We offer our deepest condolences to Lydia's family and loved ones.”

$75,000 GoFundMe campaign A fundraiser to support Charis Ann Kuhl's surviving daughters, Nora and Vera, and her husband, Steve, had raised $130,662 as of this reporting date. The campaign identified the 5-year-old victim as Kuhl's daughter, Stella. The surviving Kuhl family members reportedly escaped the fire.

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

“There is no doubt that our God is good, but in moments like these, it is difficult to understand his ways,” the Wisconsin-based Lutheran church said. St. Mark Ministrieswrote about the death of the Henselins, whose parents were church partners: “Our hearts aches for the Henselins, even as we hold to the hope of the resurrection. We pray that Jesus will come soon to announce the new heavens and the new earth.”

The fire “appears to be accidental,” but the Wisconsin Department of Justice/State Fire Marshal has opened an investigation, JCSO said.

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