The fire was reported around 6 p.m. in several floors of the building in the 1100 block of Findlay Avenue.
The fire quickly reached three alarms as firefighters sawed open the roof to keep the flames from jumping to neighboring buildings.
"It looked like hell. That's what it looked like, like hell. All the flames were just coming up," said neighbor Lorraine Aponte.
The Red Cross says at least 12 families, including 30 adults and 22 children, were impacted by the fire. No injuries were reported.
"They were scared, they were very scared," Aponte said. "I have a good friend of mine, she has kids, they ran out with no shoes, no nothing."
The firefighters' actions to save the neighboring buildings ended up destroying Ana Cruz's home. Her ceiling was ripped open and now her apartment is in ruins.
"You only see these things on TV, not in real life," Cruz said. "I wasn't expecting this. You go outside to the supermarket to buy groceries and when you go back home, everything's lost."
The building had been rehabbed by NYCHA to provide affordable housing.
The FDNY said the fire does not appear to be intentional, but an investigation is underway.