(Nov. 29, 2013) A fire in the rectory of St. Paul’s by-the-Sea Episcopal Church in Ocean City this morning has claimed the lives of two victims, including the church’s pastor and the man who allegedly started the fire under bizarre and horrifying circumstances.
A third victim was transported to the burn unit at Johns Hopkins’ Bayview Medical Center in Baltimore with life-threatening injuries. Her condition is currently unknown.
The Ocean City Fire Department responded to the rectory, located on the northeast corner of Baltimore Avenue and Third Street, around 9:25 a.m. A fire originating in the ground-level food and clothing pantry, known as the Shepherd’s Crook, had spread up through the building.
The fire started, according to multiple accounts, when a man entered the Shepherd’s Crook engulfed in flames. He had been seen moments before crossing Baltimore Avenue, with witnesses reporting that he appeared to by trying to light a cigarette.
“He comes across the street lighting his cigarette, and everyone thinks he’s just walking over for a cup of coffee,” said one witness. “Thirty seconds later, he bursts in the door on fire.”
The incident happened at a time when the facility was predictably busy, as the Shepherd’s Crook typically began serving at 10 a.m. Hot coffee was also available on the porch as a courtesy to homeless residents looking to warm up.
Upon entering, the man then grabbed onto a second victim, a female volunteer, causing her to be engulfed as well as igniting the entire Shepherd’s Crook storeroom.
“[A woman] was there and he grabbed her and said ‘help me,’” another witness said.
“I was coming by to get some canned stuff,” said witness Walter Linthicum. “She was burnt. A man put her out with his hands. His hands were black.”
Father David Dingwall, the church’s rector, was also taken from the blaze with severe burns. Dingwall was reportedly working in his office, on the rectory’s top floor, at the time the fire broke out, and may have been trapped in the space. The upper floor was observed to have sustained heavy damage.
Dingwall was carried out of the side of the building by firefighters, and was seen being administered CPR on the scene.
Atlantic General Hospital confirmed around 6 p.m. this evening that Dingwall had succumbed to his injuries.
“We were just about to celebrate his 25th year as a priest,” said parishioner Bob Rothermel. “Invitations were just sent out.”
The celebration was scheduled for Sunday, Dec. 15, the silver anniversary of Dingwall’s ordination.
The Ocean City Police Department’s Criminal Investigation Division, along with the city’s Office of the Fire Marshall, are investigating the incident.
City officials declined to comment on whether the apparent self-immolation was being investigated as a freak accident, or a possible act of malice. However, one source commented that the circumstances were “extremely messy.”
Homeless residents are known to take shelter on the rectory’s porches, even when the Shepherd’s crook is not open.
“A couple weeks ago we had an incident where some guys were sleeping on the porch and tried to light a fire in a five-gallon bucket to keep warm, and it burned through the porch,” said Kevin Ball of the Park Place Hotel, who volunteers at the church. “When I heard the sirens, I thought the same thing had happened again, but it was much worse.”
“It’s a tinder box,” Ball said. “The alarms worked, but it’s an old building.”
Firefighters were on the scene for several hours cutting passages into the rectory’s walls and insulation.
“We’re in the process of what we call ‘overhauling,’ to make sure that there are no more pockets of fire that could flare up,” OCFD spokesman Steve Price said this afternoon.
Price said responders found “very little damage” to the church itself, which, although connected to the rectory, was constructed separately.
According to the website of St. Paul’s by-the-Sea, the cornerstone of the church was laid in 1900, and the present rectory built in 1923.
Dingwall came to the Eastern Shore in 2003 from British Columbia, Canada after his wife, Brenda, was hired by NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility. Dingwall first performed volunteer services at Christ Episcopal Church in Denton until he obtained his green card, allowing him to begin full-time work at St. Paul’s in October 2005. He and his family lived in Snow Hill.
Many in the Shepherd’s Crook community, which serves a large number of the area’s homeless and less fortunate, were visibly shocked as they watched firefighters comb through the scene.
“A lot of people are going to be affected by this. They really helped a lot of folks,” said volunteer Yvette Kiser. “It’s especially terrible to see this happen around the holidays.”