OCEAN CITY — About two weeks after the fatal fire at a historic downtown church that claimed the lives of two individuals, including the church pastor, the local woman critically injured in the blaze could soon be returning home in a remarkable story of determination.
The investigation into the Nov. 26 fire at the St. Paul’s by the Sea Episcopal Church on Baltimore Ave. at 3rd Street revealed a suspect, later identified as John Raymond Sterner, 56, of Ocean City, purchased gasoline at a nearby Shell station at the foot of the Route 50 bridge, walked several blocks to Baltimore Avenue, doused himself in gasoline, set himself on fire and then entered an area of the church rectory known as the Shepherd’s Crook.
Sterner was found deceased inside the building by first-arriving firefighters. During a search of the second floor of the structure, firefighters found the church pastor, Rev. David Dingwall, who was unconscious. Dingwall was quickly removed from the building and treated briefly at the scene by Ocean City paramedics before being transported to Atlantic General Hospital, where he later succumbed to his injuries. Last week, the Ocean City Fire Marshal’s Office ruled Sterner’s death a suicide and Dingwall’s death a homicide, but the survivor’s version of the events is a story of fortitude and courage highlighted by a will to live.
Shortly after setting himself on fire and entering the Shepherd’s Crook, Sterner came into contact with an adult female, later confirmed to be Dana Truitt, 42, of Ocean City, who was working as a volunteer at the church on that fateful Tuesday morning.
In a telephone interview with The Dispatch on Monday from her hospital room at Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center, Truitt recounted the events just prior to and after the blaze.
“I volunteer at the church on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays, and on that day I was helping with the Thanksgiving dinners,” she said. “When I looked outside, I saw the guy set himself on fire. He came in and said to me ‘you’re not getting outside’ and ‘you’re not leaving and you’re not getting out of here alive.’ I said ‘yes, I am’ and I fought my way by him. I got outside and that’s how I survived it.”
Truitt said Sterner attempted to prevent her from fleeing, but she was able to force her way past him. However, she was not able to get by the burning man before he came into contact with her and caught her on fire as well.
“He was able to grab my right side,” she said. “He grabbed me and said ‘you’re not going anywhere’ and I said ‘you watch me.’ That’s what I did. I pushed by him and I got back outside and the first thing I did was start to take my clothes off because I knew I wouldn’t live and I didn’t have any choice but to take my clothes off.”
So, Truitt was outside and on fire and attempting to take her burning clothes off when help arrived.
“I was outside and I started to take my clothes off when the fire company finally showed up,” she said. “They said ‘come on, get in the ambulance’ and I walked to the ambulance and that’s when they started cutting the rest of my clothes off. They said ‘Dana, we don’t know how you’re doing it honey, but you’re talking and can you tell us what happened and everything. I was telling them what was going on.”
Truitt said the incident happened without warning on a random quiet Tuesday morning at the church where she volunteered. She said she didn’t know Sterner personally, but was familiar with him as a regular at the Shepherd’s Crook.
“I had seen him before, but I didn’t really know him,” she said. “The one thing everybody around there knew about him was that he was a bad, bad alcoholic.”
Truitt said she was conscious during her transport via ambulance from the church fire to Berlin, but remembers little after that point.
“I remember being awake and alert as far as Berlin, but that’s when I think they gave me some medicine, because I started hurting real bad,” she said. “I was hurting from the beginning, but I must have been in shock because I really didn’t start hurting real bad until then. After that, I don’t remember anything until I got up here.”
Truitt said a couple of days past before she came around and woke up at Hopkins Bayview Medical Center.
“They said I should be able to go home in about two weeks,” she said. “That’s what they’re saying now.
Truitt said in the weeks since, she has had good days and bad days, but it appears she has turned a corner.
“Right now, they’re not letting me have anything to drink,” she said. “I’m getting fluids intravenously. I’m just so thirsty.”
Truitt certainly has a long road to recovery, but under the circumstances, she is happy to be alive and awaits the opportunity to return to her resort home.
“They said for somebody that has third-degree burns like I got, they said I’m healing up real good,” she said. “They’ve said they have never seen anything like it before. That’s good news I guess.”
Truitt has worked for resort property owner Spiro Buas for the last few years and her fiancé has worked for Buas for 14 years or so. Already, Buas is organizing a fundraising effort for Truitt to help her with mounting medical costs and other expenses. An account has been opened in her name at the Bank of Ocean City titled the Dana Truitt Donation Fund. Donations can be made at any Bank of Ocean City branch or by mail to the Dana Truitt Donation Fund, C/O Bank of Ocean City, P.O. Box 150, Ocean City, Md. 21843.
It’s important for donors to specify the Dana Truitt Donation Fund as the Bank of Ocean City has other funds established in relation to the fire. In addition, donations can be made to the fund through www.ocrooms.com through the website’s donation link on the main page. The method of payment on the website is through PayPal.
The Dispatch will have more information about additional fundraising efforts for Truitt when they become available.