Marrakech, Morocco—— A rare and powerful earthquake struck Morocco late Friday night, killing more than 1,000 people and damaging buildings from villages in the Atlas Mountains to the historic city of Marrakech. The exact death toll was unclear as rescuers trudged through boulder-strewn roads to reach remote mountain villages that were among the worst-hit.
People woke up to the 6.8-magnitude earthquake and ran into the streets with fear and disbelief. One man who visited a nearby apartment said dishes and wall hangings started raining down, knocking people’s feet and chairs off their feet. One woman described fleeing her home after being “severely shaken”. A man holding a child said he was awakened by the vibrations in his bed.
State television showed people gathering on the streets of Marrakech, afraid to return to buildings that may still be unstable. Many people wrapped themselves in blankets and tried to sleep outside.
The earthquake, Morocco’s worst in 120 years, knocked down buildings and walls in the ancient city, which were made of stone and masonry that was not earthquake-resistant.
Bill McGuire, emeritus professor of geophysics and climate hazards at University College London, said: “The problem is that in places where damaging earthquakes are rare, buildings are not built strong enough to cope with strong ground shaking, so many buildings collapse , causing massive casualties.” “Once confirmed, I expect the final death toll to climb into the thousands. As with any major earthquake, there may be aftershocks that will cause further casualties and hinder search and rescue.”
In a sign of the scale of the disaster, Morocco’s King Mohammed VI ordered the armed forces to mobilize air and land resources, specialized search and rescue teams and surgical field hospitals, according to a statement from the military. But despite offers of help from around the world, the Moroccan government has yet to formally request aid, a necessary step before outside rescuers can be deployed.
In Marrakech, the famous 12th-century Koutoubia Mosque was damaged, but the extent was unclear. Its 69-meter (226-foot) tall minaret is known as the “Roof of Marrakech.” Moroccans also posted videos showing damage to parts of the famous red wall surrounding the Old Town, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Morocco’s interior ministry reported on Saturday morning that at least 1,037 people had died, mostly in Marrakech and five provinces near the epicenter, and 1,204 others had been injured. The health ministry wrote that 721 of the injured were in critical condition.
Rescuers worked through the night, searching for survivors in the darkness, dust and rubble.
Much of Moulay Brahim, a small village on a hillside south of Marrakech, has collapsed walls, shattered windows and turned a dozen houses into a heap of concrete and bent metal poles. Uninhabitable. At least five residents were trapped.
Ayoub Toudite said he was working out with friends at the gym when “we felt a huge shock, like it was the end of the world.” After 10 seconds, it all disappeared, he said .
“We found casualties, people running, children crying,” he told The Associated Press. “We have never seen anything like this, 20 people died and 30 people were injured in the area.”
Rescuers are using hammers and axes to free a man trapped under a two-storey building. People who could squeeze into the small space were bringing him water.
“We are all afraid this will happen again,” Tudit said.
The head of a town near the epicenter of the earthquake told Moroccan news website 2M that several houses in nearby towns had partially or completely collapsed, and power and roads were cut off in some places.
Abdulrahim Ait Daoud, mayor of Talat Nyakub town, said authorities were working to clear roads in Hauz province to allow ambulances to pass and provide assistance to affected people, but He said the vast distances between mountain villages meant it would take time to understand the extent of the damage.
The Moroccan military deployed planes, helicopters and drones and emergency services mobilized aid to the affected areas, but roads leading to the mountains surrounding the epicenter were choked with vehicles and blocked by fallen rocks, slowing rescue efforts. Trucks loaded with blankets, camping cots and lighting equipment are trying to reach the worst-hit areas, state news agency MAP reported.
On the steep, winding zigzag road from Marrakech to Alhouz, ambulances with sirens blaring and cars honking skirt around a pile of Mars-like red rocks that have tumbled down the mountainside and clogged the road. Red Cross crews attempt to clear a boulder blocking a two-lane highway.
Ambulances and motorcycles roared past late Saturday morning in Marrakech on the edge of the old city, where business activity was mostly back to normal on Saturday morning. Tourists and passers-by walked through the barricades and took photos of parts of the cracked ocher clay wall, scattering debris and dust on the sidewalk and street.
As condolences poured in at the G20 summits in Europe, the Middle East and India, world leaders offered to send aid or rescue workers. Among those offering aid was Turkey’s president, whose country lost tens of thousands of people in a massive earthquake earlier this year. France and Germany, which have large populations of Moroccan origin, have also offered to help, and the leaders of Ukraine and Russia have expressed support for the Moroccans.
The U.S. Geological Survey said the quake struck at 11:11 pm (2211 GMT) with a preliminary magnitude of 6.8 and the shaking lasted for several seconds. U.S. agencies reported a 4.9-magnitude aftershock 19 minutes later.
The epicenter of Friday’s quake was near the town of Igil in Hauz province, about 70 kilometers (43.5 miles) south of Marrakech. Alhouz is famous for its scenic villages and valleys in the High Atlas Mountains, as well as villages built on the mountainside.
The U.S. Geological Survey said the epicenter was 18 kilometers (11 miles) below the surface, while Morocco’s seismological agency said it was 11 kilometers (7 miles) below the surface. Such shallow earthquakes are more dangerous.
Initial reports indicate severe damage and deaths in the Marrakech-Safi region, which according to official figures has a population of more than 4.5 million people.
Earthquakes in North Africa are relatively rare. Lahcen Mhanni, head of the National Geophysical Institute’s seismic monitoring and warning department, told 2M television that the earthquake was the strongest ever recorded in the region.
In 1960, a magnitude 5.8 earthquake struck near the Moroccan city of Agadir, killing thousands of people.
The Agadir earthquake prompted changes in Morocco’s building rules, but many buildings, especially rural homes, are not designed to withstand such an earthquake.
In 2004, a 6.4-magnitude earthquake struck near the Mediterranean coastal city of Al Hoceima, killing more than 600 people.
Friday’s quake was felt as far away as Portugal and Algeria, according to Portugal’s Institute of Marine and Atmospheric Research and Algeria’s civil protection agency, which oversees the emergency response.