OSHA investigating work accident that claimed life of Winona Lake Fire Chief Mitch Titus

(Gary Nieter / Times-Union)

If you ask someone about Mitch Titus, they’ll likely tell you how dedicated the Winona Lake Volunteer Fire Department chief was.

Titus, 47, died Sunday in Lutheran Hospital of Fort Wayne from injuries suffered Friday in a work-related accident at G&G Hauling & Excavating on CR 150W. The federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration is investigating the accident, according to a G&G spokesperson.

“I’ve seen his whole firefighting career and he is, to describe him, dedicated is the best word. He was dedicated to the fire service. He grew to his position as a chief, went up the ranks,” Winona Lake firefighter Mike Cox said. “He really put everything into fire service, not just in Winona Lake but countywide.”

Titus served 12 years as chief.

Cox said all firefighters in the county knew Titus. They might not have always agreed with him, but Titus “was one to get things done for the betterment and safety of the fire department.”

One project Cox said Titus was working on was getting vent fans for the county fire departments. He said they’ve had situations where it took four to five hours to get smoke out of a building, but a trailer-mounted vent fan they tested got smoke out of a smoke-filled dorm in about 10 minutes. Cox said they’ve raised about one-third of the cost of one vent fan, but would like to get two or three for the county.

The WLFD has about 30 volunteer firefighters and has been around since 1914, Cox said. This is the first time the department has lost a standing chief.

“The department would like to thank all who passed on their condolences and announced their support for the family and the department. It really helps,” Cox said.

Warsaw-Wayne Fire Territory Chief Mike Wilson said, “Mitch was one of the leading fire chiefs in the Kosciusko County Firemen’s Association. His dedication was superb. Even though he wore a different patch, he was always a part of the (Warsaw-Wayne Fire Territory) in brotherhood.”

Titus would do anything he could to help the Warsaw fire department, Wilson said.

“It’s a big loss to his family, to his department, our department and the community because of his dedication to the community,” Wilson said.

Winona Lake Town Council President Rick Swaim said Titus was “very dedicated” to the fire department and protecting citizens and the community, as well as organizing the volunteer fire department.

“It’s a giant loss. He was very dedicated to the community,” Swaim said.

Kevin McSherry, president of the KCFA, said he knew Titus very well. Titus was named the Association’s Fireman of the Year in 2018.

“He was a real dedicated man to his family and to his fire department in Winona Lake and to the county association,” McSherry said. “He wasn’t an officer of the association, but he was always supportive and always there to help other firefighters and other fire departments. It was outstanding to see his amount of dedication and service.”

Winona Lake has been blessed with good leaders in its fire department, from Dick Haines to Roger Gelbaugh, and McSherry said Titus was the latest in that string of good leaders.

“They’ve never had a lack of good leadership there. Those shoes are going to be hard to fill,” he said.

At times, McSherry said, a fire chief has to be a politician, hard-nosed and compassionate. When things are falling down around you, a fire chief has to be strong and direct.

“(Titus) was a good firefighter,” McSherry said. “He definitely deserves a tribute for his dedication.”

The KCFA will do anything Titus’ wife Jody wishes or allows, he said. “We’ll be there for her.”

Winona Lake Town Coordinator Craig Allebach said, “We here at the town of Winona Lake … we’re just devastated. We extend our deepest sympathies to the family, the extended family, the firefighters, the county firefighters. We know they have a close-knit group.”

He said the town will do whatever it can and provide whatever resources it can to Titus’ family.

Allebach said he hasn’t heard yet who will take over until a new chief is named. However, since first assistant chief Kevin Gelbaugh is Titus’ brother-in-law, he said second assistant chief Mike Raymer may fill the interim position until Gelbaugh is ready.

Cox said there will be an election to name the new Winona Lake fire chief, but there’s no rush because Gelbaugh and Raymer are “good firefighters and they know their stuff.”

Numerous fire department Facebook pages and others also have paid tribute to Titus.

Warsaw-Wayne Fire Territory posted that it “shares their heartfelt condolences at this most difficult time to the family and friends of Winona Lake Fire Chief Mitch Titus.”

The Kosciusko County Sheriff’s Office shared, “With heavy hearts, we join our brothers and sisters of the Winona Lake Fire Department in mourning the loss of Chief Mitch Titus. Chief Titus assisted our agency countless times throughout the years and was always there with a helping hand. Please keep the family and friends of Chief Titus in your thoughts and prayers.”

City of Warsaw posted that it “shares in mourning the loss of Winona Lake Fire Chief Mitch Titus. We are thankful for the leadership and service he provided to our community. Please keep the Winona Lake Fire Department, his family, friends and fellow co-workers in your thoughts and prayers.”

The KCFA chaplain’s page stated, “Kosciusko County lost a great friend and great fireman. Chief Mitch Titus of the Winona Lake Fire Department passed away (Sunday). Please pray for the family and department as they go through these hard times.”

The Silver Lake Volunteer Fire Department posted, “Thoughts and prayers for Winona Lake Fire Department. They have lost their Fire Chief Mitch Titus. Please remember his family. Mitch was a good guy who would help wherever he was. Heaven gained a good firefighter, husband, father and friend.”

Visitation for Titus is from 2 to 8 p.m. Wednesday at the Winona Heritage Room, 901 Park Ave., Winona Lake.

Services will be at 11 a.m. Thursday at the Manahan Orthopaedic Capital Center, 610 Wooster Road, Winona Lake, with graveside services following at Oakwood Cemetery.

Read his full obituary, here.