A fire that burned through a South Jersey diner early Thursday morning has likely destroyed the building, according to police.
The Country Town Diner in Berlin sustained significant damage when a fire broke out just before midnight. The flames raged through the early hours of Thursday morning, and police closed a portion of the White Horse Pike as officials fought the flames, officials said.
"The inside is a disaster," Berlin Borough Police Chief Michael Miller said Thursday afternoon. "It's mostly likely a total loss of the building."
Miller said there was significant water damage that had caused the drop ceiling to nearly disintegrate. He also said it was too soon to pinpoint the cause of the fire, but that officers were continuing to follow up on several leads.
The diner was closed for the night at the time of the fire, and no employees or customers were injured by the blaze, police said.
Nearly 12 hours after the fire broke out a handful of police officers, as well officials with the Fire Marshal's office, remained at the scene. Caution tape blocked off the diner's perimeter, as an officer with a K-9 walked along the edges.
Large holes were visible through the charred roof, but most of the exterior appeared unscathed by the flames.
Robert Zbikowski, a friend of owner Thomas Giannis' for more than 20 years, was waiting in the parking lot next door for the all-clear to go in and see the damage.
"[The diner] means a lot to him, business was going good," he said, noting that Giannis had just over a dozen employees at the diner, and that it had opened under his management around Mother's Day.
Giannis was leasing the property, Miller said. Tax records show a group called Sunrise Equities based in Great Neck, New York, has owned the property since at least 2010. Many recall the landmark eatery as the White Horse Diner.
Zibkowski said he had left the diner Wednesday night with Giannis around 10:30, not long after it closed.
He said Giannis runs the diner and takes care of his parents, who are nearly 90 years old. Zibkowski said he often comes by to help, since his friend was in a car crash about a year ago and is still using a walker to get around.
Giannis could not be reached for comment Thursday.
"This is all they have," Zibkowski said, looking at the diner where holes were visible through the charred roof. "I don't know what they're going to do now."
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