Arson investigators and cadaver dogs were set to begin sifting through the charred wood and brick rubble at the Jason Manor Apartments on the west side of the city later in the day. No deaths had been reported, but the dogs were on standby because some residents still had not been found by early Wednesday afternoon.
"It's hard to nail down," said Detroit Fire Department Capt. Pat McNulty, who added that some people leave on their own or get rides from relatives after fires.
The collapsed roof made it hard for firefighters to search, said Tracy Thomas, a fire battalion chief. Thomas was hopeful no bodies would be recovered.
At least four people were taken to hospitals and several others were treated for minor injuries at the scene, according to Fire Commissioner Jonathan Jackson.
Of the building's 42 units, 39 were occupied, he added.
Tameka Williams, 28, was awakened to the fire around 6 a.m. by her boyfriend. She said they tried to leave their apartment with her two children, ages 8 and 6, but there was too much smoke outside the door.
"We went to the window and I dropped them down, then I jumped down and then he jumped down," Williams said. She said the children weren't injured but that her leg hurt a bit.
"I lost everything. I'm alive. I'm still here. That other stuff can be replaced," she said.
Williams wore a pair of donated pants and socks several hours after she had leaped from the building into the snow, ice and 18-degree weather. She'd escaped without so much as a pair of pants or shoes to wear as she fled the building, and had told neighbors to flee as the flames chewed up the floors.
"I didn't even have on no pants," she said. "No underwear. No pants. Just bare," she said.
"I saw a couple of people who were on the third floor when we jumped out," she said. "They were saying 'Help! Help! And I'm telling them 'just jump.' I don't know if they jumped out. ... I just pray that they made it out."
Firefighters rescued about 25 people, who were given shelter in a bus before being taken to Redford Aldersgate United Methodist Church Brightmoor Campus, Jackson said.
Streams of people brought boxes and bags of clothing and other items to the church to help Tameka Williams and others displaced by the fire. About 50 of the approximately 100 people who lost their apartments were being helped at the church, said Courtney Williams, campus pastor.
The Salvation Army and American Red Cross were assisting the church in finding other shelter for the families.
How the fire started was not immediately known Wednesday, but police were called to the apartment building earlier to deal with a disturbance at a party, Jackson said. Police were investigating whether that was related to the fire.
Police spokesman Rodney Johnson said that when officers arrived shortly after 3 a.m., a woman reported being sexually assaulted and was taken to a hospital. He said she was visiting someone in the building but didn't know the person who allegedly assaulted her.
Associated Press writer Jeff Karoub contributed to this report.