Peabody firefighters battle a blaze at Highlands at Dearborn. Some residents in the building were evacuated. The cause of the fire is under investigation.

PEABODY -- Fire investigators are looking into the cause of a one-alarm fire that displaced residents in 22 homes of the newly constructed Highlands at Dearborn apartments yesterday.

No one was injured in the fire.

Twenty-one firefighters battled the blaze, which was visible to drivers passing on Route 128.

"I can tell you the fire was in the area of the gas meter, and that's what they are looking at," said Deputy fire Chief Richard Nelson, the commanding officer at the fire.

Nelson said he doesn't expect the State Fire Marshal's Office and Peabody fire investigators to have additional information about the fire until today.

The fire blackened the entire side of one of the apartment complex's three-story buildings and destroyed part of the roof yesterday afternoon. Some residents were evacuated.

The quick reaction of the Peabody Fire Department astonished resident Vernon LeBeau, who joined a small knot of evacuees huddled outside against the freezing cold.

"I'm always amazed at these guys. They went right in that building, and the flames from the gas line were still burning," he said.

Jose Polanco, also a resident of the burning building, was interrupted in the middle of a shower and told to get out.

"I came out in my boxers," he said. "My friend brought me some clothes." He and his girlfriend have lived at the Highlands five or six months, he said. "This is the first incident."

Nelson said firefighters arrived at the scene and found the side of the building on fire.

Firefighters searched inside the building to make sure everyone evacuated while other firefighters began an interior attack on the fire.

The fire traveled up the three floors to the attic, Nelson said.

Residents displaced by the fire are being put up at area hotels, but most are expected to return by the weekend. Three to nine apartments had water, smoke and fire damage.

Dearborn, a series of long, three-story buildings, is expected eventually to include nearly 450 apartments. Structures are still under construction at the far end of the site, away from the fire. While firefighters gathered on balconies and sprayed the building with water, police pushed spectators more than 100 yards away from the fire.

"It's gas," an officer said. At least one KeySpan truck was seen in the parking lot, along with Peabody fire and police and the state police.

Swirling snow began to fall for a brief period, and the cold was already so sharp that virtually all of the spectators soon disappeared.

Sandra Santiangelo watched in the parking lot from the warmth of her car. She lives in the middle section of the building.

"I was driving down 128, and I saw the flames," she said. "It was very, very scary. I'm terrified of fire. ... I'm waiting to get into my apartment now."

Meanwhile, a pair of young men hurried into the apartment opposite the blaze. It was an urgent mission to rescue a family cat, one said. "Or my wife will kill me."

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