CLEARWATER — If Fireman John wasn't at the flea market, he was at one of his favorite fishing spots searching for snook, trout or redfish.
On Monday, John Joseph Litz, a retired Pinellas Park firefighter and avid angler, died fishing.
Litz died after he and a fishing buddy fell overboard from their boat just after 10:30 a.m. in the water off Sunset Drive, about a mile north of Memorial Causeway, authorities said. He was unconscious and not breathing when he was plucked from the Intracoastal Waterway by Clearwater rescue workers about 10:45 a.m.
Litz of Pinellas Park would have turned 69 Thursday. He spent 38 years with the Pinellas Park Fire Department before retiring in 2004.
"John was everywhere at a fire. He was the guy, if you needed something, he'd be bringing it over before you ever knew you needed it," said longtime friend and colleague, Pinellas Park Fire Lt. Nick Reale.
"Everybody loved John. It's a shame, an absolute tragedy," Reale said.
Litz loved to scour flea markets and garage sales for fishing gear to donate to disadvantaged children, Reale said.
While some anglers are reluctant to give up their favorite fishing holes, Litz was quick to share spots where the fish were biting, friends said.
"If he was catching fish, he wanted everybody to catch fish," said Eric Bachnik, chief operating officer of Largo-based L&S Baits.
"He was the type of guy that could walk into a room with anybody and talk to them about fishing. … He was always upbeat," Bachnik said.
Litz had been married to his wife, Pamela, for more than 50 years. The couple has two children, Tammi and Joey.
Everyone called him Fireman John, said friend Joe Georgia, a fisherman.
"And he called everybody 'Mister,' whether you were a boy or a girl or an 80-year-old lady," Georgia said.
Paramedics performed CPR on Litz as he was taken to Clearwater's Seminole Street boat ramp, then transferred into an ambulance. He was taken to Morton Plant Hospital and pronounced dead, officials said.
Litz's friend, 70-year-old Anthony S. Naismith, was rescued from the water by a passing boater, but was not injured, officials said.
Witness Marty Daniel, 40, was playing a game of horseshoes in a waterfront yard on Sunset Drive when he heard a commotion, then saw two men in the water who were waving their arms.
"I heard a loud motor and I looked out and (the boat) was doing circles and they were yelling 'Help!' because it was doing circles around them," Daniel said.
It was unknown how Litz and Naismith fell overboard from the 13-foot Carolina Skiff, a recreational vessel with an outboard motor, but Pinellas sheriff's investigators said it appeared they encountered a large wave, possibly the wake from another vessel.
Georgia said the boat had a "tiller engine," not a steering wheel. He suspects whoever was piloting the boat at the time had his hand knocked off the tiller, which would have jerked the engine and thrown the vessel into a spin.
Neither man was wearing a life jacket, the Sheriff's Office said.
Reale, who has known Litz for nearly 30 years, said his friend was always "a super-careful guy" and that he was surprised to learn Litz wasn't wearing one.
But Georgia said it's not uncommon for people with a lot of experience on the water to forgo life jackets. "None of us ever think we're going to get thrown out of the boat. You're going to have time. You're going to start taking on water. All right, hit the EPIRB (emergency position-indicating radio beacon) and jump in the water with your life jackets on."
News of Litz's death spread quickly throughout a somber fire department and a sorrowful fishing community Monday.
"It's just devastating we're losing someone like him," Georgia said.
Staff writers Terry Tomalin and Anne Lindberg contributed to this report.