SAN ANTONIO – As San Antonio firefighters rushed into his burning building earlier this year, all Eli Guerra wanted to do was withdraw.
He couldn’t bare to see the South Side daycare center he had built decades ago with his late-wife, Susan, go up in flames.
“I wanted to hide under a rock somewhere and not come out until it was over,” he said recently, reflecting on that day.
The fire at Guardian Angel daycare broke out before daylight on the morning of April 15.
For hours, firefighters struggled to put out the flames which had burned through the roof of the building, a former church located in the 1600 block of Pleasanton Road.
“It was surreal. We couldn’t believe this whole place was up in smoke,” said Pamela Setufe, one of several parents who were suddenly left with a child care crisis due to the fire. “Seeing the fire happen, our hearts broke and we were wondering, ‘What are we going to do?”
Guerra tried his best to comfort parents as they arrived at the scene that morning.
In the back of his mind, he says, he also had questions about the future.
He and his late-wife, who once had been a Catholic nun, opened Guardian Angel in 1986 with the specific purpose of helping people in the surrounding community. At one point, he says, they had as many as 150 children attending the center.
“There are times that I just want to stop, quit, but you know what? No, I can’t,” he said.
Instead, Guerra says, with lots of help from others, he dug in and came up with a plan for rebuilding.
He used one of the only sections of the old structure that was still standing to reopen Guardian Angel.
Last week, he gathered with some of his young clients for a small ribbon-cutting ceremony, complete with a blessing from a Catholic priest.
“We don’t have 17,000 square feet like we used to have. We have 2.400 square feet. But that’s enough,” he said.
Guerra says the road back from the ruins was full of red tape.
It was only with the help of Mayor Ron Nirenberg and City Councilmember Phyllis Viagran that he was able to obtain the necessary permits.
“It is a miracle that we’re back over here again,” he said.
It seems the miracles don’t end there.
In spite of the intense heat of the fire, Guerra says, two of his most important items survived.
He pointed to a painting of the Virgin of Guadalupe, still intact but with a few sooty smudges, and a giant metal cross that had stood atop the roof, even as it burned.
Both items, he says, will continue to occupy a special place at the revamped daycare center.