EAST LOS ANGELES (CBSLA) — A Los Angeles group that helps struggling veterans get back on their feet is facing a major setback after a new center designed to help them burned to the ground in a case of possible arson.

A large fire at an East Los Angeles housing project under construction. Sept. 16, 2020. (RMG News)

“I could smell the smoke, but I couldn’t tell exactly what area it was coming from,” Leo Cuadrado, New Directions For Veterans executive director, said.

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In a matter of hours, he watched years of work go up in smoke after getting a Wednesday night call from a coworker.

“She said, ‘Turn on the news,’ and you know, we see First and Rowan project,” he said. “And I was like, ‘Oh my God, that’s our project.'”

Cuadrado’s nonprofit was on the brink of finishing a five-story housing complex for veterans and low-income families in East Los Angeles. The apartments were part of the non-profit’s program to help veterans get back on their feet.

“Some of our veterans show up without an ID, without their DD2-14, which is their discharge paperwork, and they’re starting at ground zero,” he said.

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Cuadrado said they were three months away from finishing the housing project and were starting to lease units to families when the fire destroyed everything. One day later, firefighters were still hosing down smoldering debris a day later.

“All five floors collapsed on each other,” he said. “It looked like a combat zone.”

For the past two years, New Directions For Veterans worked to bring the project to reality, partnering with the East Los Angeles Community Corporation and the city to raise millions of dollars for the 61-unit apartment building that promised to offer a new beginning for veterans and families.

“We’re looking at it as a phoenix,” Cuadrado said. “We want to rise from those ashes, we want to bring this project back to the community so we’re going to be working with all our partners to find solutions on how we can rebuild.”

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Like so many other nonprofit organizations, New Directions For Veterans was already having a difficult year after having to cancel a major fundraising event due to the coronavirus pandemic and are now seeking donations.