OCEAN CITY — The one-year anniversary of the tragic fire at St. Paul’s by-the-Sea in Ocean City was remembered this week with special services as well as numerous personal reflections.
“We acknowledge our grief and proclaim our faith in God’s love and reconciliation. We recognize the importance of acknowledging the past, no matter how difficult or tragic, but we also believe in looking forward to the future. We believe that God has many good things in store for St. Paul’s by-the-Sea. We are more committed to our ministry to the community than ever before,” said The Rev. Dr. Mark B. Cyr on this week’s three services of “Remembrance and Healing” that were held on Tuesday and Wednesday in DeWees Hall on the St. Paul’s campus.
On the morning of Nov. 26, 2013, emergency crews responded to the St. Paul’s by-the-Sea Episcopal Church for a reported active fire. Upon arrival, firefighters discovered the church’s rectory was ablaze and immediately realized there were rescues to be made.
The fire was quickly brought under control, but not before John Raymond Sterner, 56, died after walking into the Shepherd’s Crook on fire. Later investigation found Sterner purchased gasoline at a nearby gas station at the foot of the Route 50 Bridge, walked several blocks on Baltimore Avenue, doused himself in the fuel, set himself on fire and walked into the Shepherd’s Crook.
During a search of the second floor of the structure, firefighters discovered the church’s pastor, Rev. David Dingwall, was unconscious. He was removed and later succumbed to his injuries at Atlantic General Hospital.
Injured in the fire was Dana Truitt, who was volunteering at the Shepherd’s Crook the morning of Nov. 26. Truitt is reportedly still recovering from her major injuries after a considerable stint at the Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center. In an interview two weeks after the fire, Truitt recalled the events of that tragic day.
Truitt said she saw Sterner set himself on fire and come directly into the church rectory. 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 at that time. “He grabbed me and said ‘you’re not going anywhere’ and I said ‘you watch me.’ That’s what I did … 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 did not wake up until nine days later in the hospital suffering from third-degree burns.
Reflecting on the one-year anniversary of the situation earlier this week, Cyr, who replaced Dingwall shortly after his death, said the church’s congregation is continuing the healing process.
“The congregation is feeling very strong as we prepare to celebrate the anniversary of the death of the rector and the friend of the Shepherd’s Crook,” Cyr said. “It has been a very tough year but we have grown closer and stronger not only as a congregation but in our faith that God is a loving God, through whom all things are possible and whose grace is abounding, regardless of what we are experiencing.”
In the year since, St. Paul’s has been a symbol of rebirth and overcoming remarkable challenges. Cyr attributes this resiliency among the congregation to a strong faith.
“Faith and trust in God is the only way that we have been able to become strong and remain strong as a congregation,” he said this week. “We believe in the resurrection, not only of our Lord but we have experienced it here at St. Paul’s by-the-Sea as individuals and as a congregation.”
Earlier this year, the rectory, which also housed church offices along with the Shepherd’s Crook ministry, was deemed a total loss after extensive evaluations about its future use. The church ultimately decided to raze the structure, while continuing renovations to the actual church sanctuary, which also sustained some damage. Rather than spend major funds on the damaged rectory, major improvements were decided upon for the actual church structure, including the installation of a sprinkler system for the entire church campus.
“The renovations are progressing. We are currently preparing the Sanctuary for the return of the pews, altar and other furnishings. The undercroft [basement of the church] is being retrofitted for offices and meeting space. We are hopeful that these tasks will be completed soon,” Cyr said.
As a result of losing its former home, the Shepherd’s Crook now has a new location south of the church on Baltimore Ave. Cyr reported the mission remains the same as it was prior to the fire.
“The Shepherd’s Crook is continuing its ministry of feeding the hungry in downtown Ocean City. Despite the relocation, we have fed more people this past summer than ever before,” Cyr said. “The need for feeding, housing and medical services for the poor and homeless has not diminished in Ocean City. On the contrary, the need is increasing. Together we can address these needs and help our entire community become a great city of compassion.”