It happened around 4:45 p.m. at the Oak Creek Village Apartments in the 4200 block of Garrett Road.
Vera Saulters arrived home just after the fire broke out.
"You couldn't see nothing but fire and black smoke," said Saulters. "I said, 'Oh my God, let me get out of here!' It's just by the grace of God that everybody's safe."
Durham fire officials say 25 firefighters converged onto the complex and went door to door to make sure everyone was out.
"There were firefighters on top of the roof. There was some on the main apartment where the fire happened and then I'm guessing the whole apartment where it happened," said eyewitness Kevin Avalos. "They just basically watered down the whole thing."
Officials said the flames originated from only one second-floor unit, but affected between four and eight others in Building J, which led to smoke and water damage.
One of them was Nelson Mejia's home.
"When they came and knocked on the door, I just saw a whole bunch of smoke come out and then I saw like the fire right there and I just ran out with my brother," said Mejia.
Mejia, his parents, three siblings and about 10 other people are now getting help from the Red Cross.
Sixteen people were displaced. No one was injured.
Officials said the fire started in some wiring between a hot water heater and an electrical panel.