LOS ANGELES — When Leonardo Cuadrado saw a raging fire tearing through an East Los Angeles neighborhood in the distance, his first thought was hoping no one had been hurt.

Soon afterward, hope turned to heartbreak as Cuadrado learned the five-story structure going up in flames before dawn Wednesday was an apartment complex being built to house scores of homeless and low-income veterans that his non-profit, New Directions for Veterans, had partnered to build with Los Angeles County and others.

Plans called for people to begin moving in shortly before Christmas.

“We were just getting ready to start the lease operations. I don’t believe any families have been slated to move in yet,” said Cuadrado, executive director of the non-profit. “The main goal now is just to ensure that they don’t fall out of our orbit.”

By the time the first of some 150 firefighters arrived at about 1 a.m. Wednesday, flames were already raging throughout the structure, Los Angeles County Fire Department spokesman Sean Ferguson said.

The blaze sent scaffolding crashing down, damaging an adjacent apartment building, store and single-family home.

No one was hurt, but a 1920s-era theater that now houses a discount store and several upstairs apartments was badly damaged and residents of the apartments had to be evacuated. The single-family home also was damaged when part of the scaffolding fell on its roof.

County Supervisor Hilda Solis, who represents the area, said the damage to the surrounding residences resulted in 16 people, including five children, being displaced.

The cause of the fire was not immediately known, but Ferguson said authorities have detained a boy for questioning.

Firefighters work the scene of fire at a five-story housing complex under construction in East Los Angeles early on Sept. 16, 2020.

“I saw the fire off at a distance around 1:30 this morning and I just thought I hope everybody’s safe,” Cuadrado, a retired Marine Corps captain, recalled. “I didn’t realize it was our site. This morning when I got the call it was very heartbreaking, very disheartening to hear. I drove to the site. It’s a total loss.”

Cuadrado said his organization and its non-profit partner, East Los Angeles Community Corporation, are already making plans to rebuild.

“We’ll start the whole process again,” he said. “We’re just very saddened that it will be delayed a couple years now. The community was very much looking forward to it.”

When ground was broken 15 months ago, the partnership released schematics showing a Spanish Revival-style building with balconies surrounded by palm trees.

It was to contain 61 apartments, including 31 for veterans, 28 for other low-income families and two for resident managers. It would also house agencies that could help people with their taxes, obtaining health care and other services.

“Projects like this should be welcomed in every community,” Solis said at the time. “I am hopeful that people will understand that it isn’t just a roof over someone’s head — it’s about wrap-around services, it’s about mental health services, it’s about job training, it’s about health care.”

She praised the non-profits she said raised over $30 million, adding the county kicked in almost $10 million.

Insurance will cover a good part of the loss, but Cuadrado said the non-profits will still take a hit when deductibles are factored in.

“We still haven’t figured out the total impact,” he said. “Once we have a clear understanding we’ll find a way to mitigate those losses.”

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