A four-alarm fire on the Danvers State Hospital property destroyed apartments that were being built and damaged a cupola on the old Kirkbride Building.

DANVERS -- A raging fire reduced four unfinished apartment buildings to rubble at the site of the former Danvers State Hospital early yesterday.

Firefighters were still dousing the smoldering wreckage with water as the sun rose on Hathorne Hill. All that was left of the buildings, which were to house 147 apartments, were towers of concrete that encased stairwells and elevator shafts.

No one was seriously injured. About 20 residents living in new apartments on the other side of the 77-acre property were evacuated to Danvers High School. Town officials expected they would be able to return home by the end of the day.

Multiple 911 calls reporting the fire began at 1:50 a.m. Many came from drivers who witnessed the dramatic conflagration from the highway. State police briefly closed Routes 1 and 95 due to heavy smoke.

"When we pulled up, the buildings were completely in flames," Danvers fire Chief James Tutko said. Firefighters from eight communities subdued the four-alarm blaze.

"This fire had a tremendous head start," State Fire Marshal Stephen Coan said.

Coan said he wouldn't categorize the fire as suspicious, but he said the investigation had just begun and no possible cause had been eliminated.

"We wouldn't leap to the thought that there were multiple fires set here | that will be part of the investigation as we go forward | but, again, the indication from the firefighters is that it had a tremendous head start," Coan said.

The estimated loss wasn't immediately known.

The 147 apartments are among 433 apartments developer AvalonBay has planned for the old hospital grounds off Route 62. AvalonBay bought the site for $12 million in 2005 and, in addition to the apartments, plans to construct 64 condominiums. Forty-eight of the apartments were occupied.

The fire engulfed entirely new construction. Only a cupola on the hospital's historical Kirkbride Building, which is being refurbished to accommodate apartments, caught fire because of the radiant heat.

The fire also destroyed four utility buildings set aside for parking and other uses. Workers had yet to install sprinkler systems in the structures that burned.

The fire "basically went through like a lumberyard fire," Tutko said.

"There were explosions of fire," said Holly Weinstein, who moved into one of the new apartments less than a week ago. "The flames were as high as the water tower. It was crazy."

Displaced tenants took temporary refuge in the high school cafeteria and received help from the American Red Cross.

"It was unbelievable," said Monte Bransfield, another resident forced to flee her apartment in the middle of the night. "It felt like a horror movie."

Jackie Cummings, 21, sat wrapped in a sleeping bag and holding her Chihuahua, Peanut. She said her mother banged on her bedroom door and told her to get out of bed. "I had no idea what was going on," Cummings said.

At the base of the concrete towers were piles of debris | charred ventilation ducts and sections of scorched pipes. The fire melted the vinyl siding on the face of a nearby building giving it the appearance of a tattered plastic bag.

Several firefighters suffered minor burns; they were treated on scene and remained on duty.

AvalonBay's transformation of the hospital site is in its infancy. Its first tenants moved in earlier this year.

The fire adds another chapter to the property's infamous history. Danvers State Hospital was a longtime home for the mentally ill, with a history of lobotomies, electric shock treatments and bodies buried in unmarked graves. The state closed it in 1992, and it was abandoned until AvalonBay began construction.

The site had by then become a favorite destination of ghost-hunting thrill-seekers

In the five years before AvalonBay bought the property, State Police charged 150 people with trespassing and issued warnings to an additional 450 people.

Interest intensified after the Victorian Gothic facility was the centerpiece of the 2001 horror film "Session 9," starring David Caruso.

The fire is the second major incident in Danvers to occur the day before a holiday. The chemical plant in Danversport exploded before Thanksgiving. In both cases, the town escaped without serious casualties.

"Our first concern was for the residents, and everyone is safe right now," Mike Moise of AvalonBay said. "That's all we know right now."

The Associated Press contributed to this report

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