Investigators believe that John Sterner, 56, was covered in a flammable substance when he entered the building Tuesday morning, which caused the fire to spread quickly, according to a news release from town officials. But the cause of the fire remained under investigation, and authorities had not reached any conclusions about how Sterner came to be on fire.
The pastor, the Rev. David Dingwall, died at a hospital after the fire. A woman who volunteers at the church was critically injured and was being treated at a burn center in Baltimore.
The Rev. Heather Cook of the Episcopal Diocese of Easton said the man later identified as Sterner "ran in screaming for help. He hugged one of the volunteers there, an adult female whose clothes were also ignited."
"This is just such a bizarre incident," Cook said. "It's bad enough to lose somebody, but right before Thanksgiving through a bizarre kind of fire, people are stunned. It's not just the parish. It's the whole Ocean City community. People are aghast."
Dingwall was a native of Canada who moved to Maryland's Eastern Shore in 2003 and became rector of St. Paul's By-The-Sea Episcopal Church in 2005. Although the building was once the church rectory, Dingwall did not live there, Cook said. It housed a food bank and church offices.
Cook said that according to witnesses, Dingwall was stricken by smoke and heat after he tried to retrieve his computer from the burning building. He was unconscious when firefighters retrieved him from the second floor, authorities said.
There was little damage to the church itself.
Sterner has a lengthy criminal history that includes arrests for offenses including assault, breaking and entering and malicious destruction of property, and he's been convicted of drug possession and possessing an open container of alcohol in public, according to online court records.