Volunteers at a church in Ocean City were opening their Thanksgiving food bank Tuesday morning when a man rushed inside, his body engulfed in flames.
Authorities say the man sparked a blaze that left the church's pastor dead and a woman who volunteered at the food bank in critical condition in the burn unit of a hospital. The man who ran inside was found dead inside the building by firefighters.
By Wednesday, authorities were still investigating how the man caught fire and if he had any relationship to the church or the food bank. He was identified as John Raymond Sterner, 56, of Ocean City.
Fire investigators suspect some type of accelerant led to the quick spread of the fire, Ocean City officials said.
The bizarre incident left many in the coastal town stunned and sent "a shock wave going through our whole diocese," said the Rev. Canon Heather E. Cook of the Episcopal Diocese of Easton, which represents the Eastern Shore.
"The timing of it, too, is particularly poignant," Cook said Wednesday. "The feeding ministry that they had would have been happening today for Thanksgiving."
Cook said a parishioner at St. Paul's by the Sea Episcopal Church and a volunteer at the food bank, located in the rectory adjacent to the church, were opening the food bank when the man ran inside, screaming for help.
The parishioner later told diocese leaders that the man "hugged" the female volunteer, causing her to catch on fire as well, Cook said. It was not apparent why.
"Maybe it was in his desperation," Cook said. The fire then spread to the wood-frame rectory.
As the parishioner ran to find a fire extinguisher, he saw the church's pastor, the Rev. David Dingwall, leaving the building, and told Dingwall that the building was on fire. Dingwall then went back inside, most likely in an effort to retrieve his laptop computer from his office on the three-story rectory's upper floor, Cook said.
Cook said she was struck by the notion that Dingwall went back for the church's records. "How many of us would do the same thing?" she said.
The food bank, known as Shepherd's Crook, operated out of the ground floor rear of the rectory adjacent to the church about three times a week and also distributed clothing, Cook said. She did not know if Sterner used the food bank.
The woman who was injured in the fire has not been publicly identified, but Cook said she was a volunteer. Ocean City officials said she was injured trying to leave the building and was still hospitalized at Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center. Her condition was unavailable.
Dingwall was found by firefighters on the second floor, which was full of smoke. He was taken to a local hospital where he died Tuesday night. The medical examiner has not determined an official cause of death for Dingwall or Sterner.
Sterner had a lengthy arrest record in Ocean City for charges that included misdemeanor assault, alcohol violations and marijuana possession, though many of those charges were ultimately dropped. The last address listed for him in court records is an Ocean City trailer park nearly 8 miles from St. Paul's. Previous court records indicate he was homeless.
Dingwall, a native of British Columbia in Canada, was pastor of St. Paul's for eight years, Cook said. Numerous parishioners and other well-wishers wrote prayers and condolences on the diocese website and social media pages.
The rectory building adjacent to the church was heavily damaged in the fire and will likely have to be razed, Cook said. The church suffered some smoke damage.
Last May, a rector and a church employee at an Episcopal church in Ellicott City were fatally shot by a homeless man who authorities believed was upset because he had been told to limit his visits to the church's food bank. That man later killed himself.
In a sermon posted to the Facebook page of St. Paul's by the Sea the day after that shooting, Dingwall shared his thoughts on how serving needy people was sometimes risky.
"It's easy to say that we 'respect the dignity of every human being' … it's not so easy to do when one of those human beings threatens the well-being of those you love," Dingwall wrote. "It's even more difficult to do so when one of those human beings takes the lives of two sisters in Christ and shatters the life of a community of faith.
"I have had my life threatened because of my faith on a couple of occasions," he continued. "On each of those occasions I was scared. … I was tempted to respond in anger and maybe even violently … but in the end I was reminded that we are called to 'Respect the dignity of every human being' … even the angry, scary, threatening ones."
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