The blaze broke out in a second-floor apartment just before 6:15 a.m. and quickly burned through an apartment building on Lenox Road.
As fire shot through much of the second floor and the roof, firefighters rushed in and rescued residents, helping them down fire escapes.
"We had to bring people out from ladders, off the roof, from our buckets, off the fire escape," FDNY Deputy Chief Stephen Moro said. "We had to remove a lot of people."
Claudette Nicholas, a 70-year-old resident of the building, was killed. Two other women suffered smoke inhalation. They were listed in stable condition at the hospital.
Seven firefighters were injured, including one who fell through a floor.
None of their injuries were considered life threatening.
It took about 130 firefighters an hour to bring the fire under control.
The cause of the fire is under investigation.
The Red Cross is assisting about 50 people who have been left out in the cold.
The building is run by the city Housing Authority.