A historic landmark and popular restaurant dating back to 1932 was heavily damaged by smoke and flames yesterday afternoon, closing Route 309 in South Tamaqua for hours.
No one was inside the White Diner when the fire began. The restaurant, which was busier early in the day, closed early as business slowed down in the afternoon.
Shortly before 3 p.m., passers-by reported seeing smoke coming from the back of the diner, located at 548 West Penn Pike, at the Tamaqua and West Penn border. Tom Hartz Jr., Tamaqua fire chief and one of the first responders on scene, reported seeing heavy smoke and flames from the back of the diner.
The diner, owned by Helen and Jim Fulmer, and Helen's brother, Morgan Jones Jr., has been in their family for many years and passed ownership many times. Decades ago it was also known as Jake's Diner.
Dennis Fritzinger, West Penn fire chief, said that it took about 50 firefighters between 30 and 45 minutes to extinguish the fire and get it under control.
Fritzinger noted that the fire appeared to have started in the kitchen or basement. The diner uses electric heat and the cooking equipment is fueled by propane gas.
Firefighter Ed Boerner, Tamaqua Rescue Squad, another early responder, said the heat inside was extremely high.
Morgan, his son Morgan Jones III, 18, and other employees had just left after closing the diner. About 15 minutes later, Jones got a call from a friend telling him that the diner was on fire.
"We had just left and we even threw the football around outside before heading home," Morgan Jones III said.
Heat in the kitchen forced firefighters to work harder to extinguish the flames. They had to break many of the windows in the front of the diner to ventilate it.
Fire police shut down busy SR309 as firefighters utilized a hydrant across the highway from the restaurant, dragging a fire hose across all four lanes of traffic.
PPL shut off electrical power to the diner as firefighters strung caution tape around the building.
Officials believe the restaurant is likely a total loss due to heavy smoke, fire and water damage throughout the building.
The diner has gone through multiple renovations and additions in its lifetime. Two trolley cars from Tamaqua and one from Lehighton, dating back to the 1800s, formed the "L"-shaped section of the restaurant.
The diner was also originally part of a gas station which was transformed into a dining room. Morgan's sister owned the business since 1986.
Jim Fulmer, who had worked at the restaurant since 1976, said his wife called him to tell him the diner was on fire. Fulmer had suffered another recent tragedy when his cabin in Columbia County was swept away by floodwaters.
Morgan expressed thanks to all the emergency responders.
Responding were firefighters from West Penn, Tamaqua, New Ringgold and Mahoning Valley. Also responding were Tamaqua and West Penn police, Tamaqua Rescue Squad, Mahoning and Tamaqua ambulances.
Fire police from Tamaqua and West Penn detoured traffic through Lewistown Valley while firefighters battled the fire. The cause of the fire won't be determined until the state police fire marshal completes an inspection today.