Back in 1945, Jake Schmucker helped build Bill Brown’s Diner on Route 30.

Through new ownership, name changes and expansion, Schmucker has remained faithful to the restaurant: Every morning, he and other retirees would socialize and sip coffee at what is now Our Coal Miners Cafe.

Monday, the 96-year-old Schmucker stood outside the restaurant’s charred ruins, lamenting the loss of an integral part of his life.

Our Coal Miners Cafe was destroyed by fire late Sunday night, leaving the close community without its favorite meeting place and nine residents of six downstairs apartments homeless.

“It’s just the same as if my own home burned,” Schmucker said as he hugged longtime waitress June Diehl. “I don’t know what we’re going to do.

“At 96 years old, I could still sit here and bawl.”

The accidental, electrical fire caused about $290,000 in damage, state police Fire Marshal Terry Wilson said in a release.

The restaurant’s green metal roof was warped by the intense heat, its dining area reduced to blackened timbers and twisted metal chairs.

The building was a total loss, said Mike Novak, assistant chief of the Jennerstown Volunteer Fire Department.

Authorities said residents of the apartments are staying with family or in nearby hotels and are being assisted by the Red Cross.

Immediately, the community began rallying to assist those displaced.

Monetary donations for the eight adults and one child are being accepted at First Commonwealth Bank in Jennerstown, while contributions of clothing and furniture can be dropped off at the White Star Hotel across Route 30 from the cafe.

“It’s horrible,” said Diehl, a waitress for 23 years, as she wiped away tears.

Owners Betty and John Rhoads met with an insurance adjuster in their home beside the restaurant. Betty Rhoads was too distraught to talk with a reporter.

During the Quecreek Mine rescue nearly four years ago, the restaurant changed its name from Brandywine Cafe and opened its arms to the miners, their families and rescuers.

For 72 hours, Rhoads and her employees shuttled food, sodas and other supplies to the rescue site five miles away.

“There’s so much they’ve done for the whole community,” Diehl said.

Since the rescue, the cafe became a depository of the region’s mining history, with irreplaceable artifacts and mementos hanging on its walls.

Ironically, the fire came just as the restaurant was preparing to open on a Monday for the first time in three years.

“We were going to come down (Monday) morning,” said Rachel Baron, 33, of Jenners-town. “We were so excited.

“It’s such a horrible thing to happen to such good people. The diner’s like an institution in town.”

Larry E. Gindlesperger, owner of the White Star Hotel, said the restaurant often catered for his bed-and-breakfast.

He said the cafe routinely hosts bus tours for the nearby Mountain Playhouse, as well as the theater’s actors.

“It was a really nice place to work,” waitress Lisa Fleegle said.

“When they called me last night at midnight, I was like ‘Oh my God.’ ”

Volunteers from Jenners-town, Boswell, Acosta, Sipesville, Somerset and Ligonier responded to the fire, which was reported at 11:09 p.m. Sunday. Firefighters were on the scene for about 41/2 hours, Novak said.

The fire rekindled briefly Monday morning.

“It’s definitely going to hurt the community,” Novak said. “This was the meeting place. A lot of the older fellows came in every morning for their cup of coffee.”

Kirk Swauger can be reached at 445-5103 or

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