Magaly Chocano scrolls through photos of the open and airy office space she created out of a 1920s-era gas station, pointing out unique, hand-crafted tables and priceless works of art.

“The inside was like this big refurbished [space] … beautiful brick walls with these huge windows and art all over and my big beautiful conference table and this is an antique Egyptian door,” Chocano said of the building she purchased three years ago.

“But it was up in flames in two minutes.”

On Feb. 28, a fire ravaged the historic building that housed the Sweb Development offices. And while the event was a tragic one for Chocano, a former advertising executive and native of Madrid, and the company she’d spent more than a decade building, what happened in the aftermath changed her outlook on her company’s place in the San Antonio community.

Sweb staffers were just settling in to work for the day when they began to smell the smoke, and then saw it creeping through the windows of the building at 1501 S. Flores.

Discovering the fire had started in a junkyard next door and was quickly spreading to the wall of their office building, employees grabbed their backpacks and purses and rushed out.

Chocano founded Sweb Development in 2008 as a web development firm that has grown to be a full-service digital and software development agency with clients around the world. The firm has 16 employees, 12 in San Antonio.

No one was hurt, but the building and all its contents were gone, including artwork by Chocano’s friend Katie Pell, who died in December, as well as the technology Sweb relies on, and a shipment of Good Guilt Apparel, Chocano’s newest venture.

Chocano received the call about the fire at 10 a.m., rushed to the scene from a meeting at the Witte Museum, and, as she stood and wailed and watched dark smoke billow across the sky, she asked herself, “What am I supposed to learn from this experience?”

San Antonio Fire Department crews contain the fire at Sweb Development building on Feb. 28. Credit: Scott Ball / Rivard Report

By 11:30, Randy Smith, president of Weston Urban, had sent her a text message asking which floor of its office building on Soledad she would like to use, rent-free.

The fire was on a Friday. When the Sweb team showed up for work at the former Broadway Bank Building on Monday morning, the entire fourth floor was opened to them, offices furnished by Smith with new folding tables and chairs.

Then more goodwill started pouring in.

Los Barrios Mexican Restaurant, Whataburger, and Bill Miller’s Bar-B-Q delivered meals. Medical service company Connect For Life sent goodies; Alamo Title sent boxes of Tiff’s Treats cookies with milk, and the Children’s Bereavement Center of South Texas sent fruit by Edible Arrangements.

Local fitness studios and trainers offered free monthly passes, and City staffers texted and called with offers to help.

Chocano had spent the weekend purchasing new desktops and monitors, and blue T-shirts that say “Rising Strong,” and Sweb was back in business “without skipping a beat,” she said. There won’t be any layoffs; in fact, they are in a hiring mode.

“Luckily, we live on the cloud, so the work was all safe,” she added.  

The temporary space not only buys Chocano some time to sort out the insurance and other affairs dealing with the fire, but it also allowed her team to stay together.

“I didn’t want us to be separated,” she said. “I really felt like after something like this, being separated would have not been conducive to recovery. And that’s where we are – we’re moving forward and we’re recovering.”

The financial reality of a devastating fire is harsh, however, as she debates whether to rebuild. Yet Chocano said she now knows why it had to happen, and that’s what she was meant to learn.

“There is nothing in this world that matters more than love and community,” Chocano wrote in a recent thank-you letter to San Antonio. “I am not alone. We are not alone.”

She also believes the fire is forcing her out of complacency.

“There’s something much bigger here for me and I would have never understood it because I was so attached and loved that building so much,” she said.

In the meantime, Chocano feels Sweb is “probably better even than before,” she said. “Because now there’s sort of this deeper understanding of what it means to be a unit of force together.

“We have to show the world that nothing can keep us down.”

Shari Biediger

Shari Biediger

Shari Biediger is a journalist and writer in San Antonio, and a business reporter for The Rivard Report.