MARRAKECH, Morocco (AP) — A rare and powerful earthquake struck Morocco late Friday, killing more than 1,000 people and damaging buildings from villages in the Atlas Mountains to the historic city of Marrakech. The total toll was not known as rescuers struggled to navigate rock-strewn roads to reach the hardest-hit isolated mountain villages.
People awakened by the 6.8 magnitude earthquake ran into the streets in terror and disbelief. A man visiting a nearby apartment said dishes and wall hangings started raining down and people were knocked off their feet and chairs. A woman described fleeing her home after an “intense vibration”. A man holding a child in his arms said he was awakened in his bed by the shaking.
State television showed people huddled in the streets of Marrakech, afraid to enter buildings that might still be unstable. Many wrapped themselves in blankets as they tried to sleep outside.
The earthquake was the largest to hit Morocco in 120 years, and it toppled buildings and walls of ancient cities constructed of stone and masonry not designed to withstand earthquakes.
“The problem is that where destructive earthquakes are rare, buildings are simply not built robust enough to cope with strong ground shaking, so many collapses result in many casualties,” said Bill McGuire, Emeritus Professor of Geophysical and Climate Risks at University College London. “I would expect the final death toll to be in the thousands once it becomes known again. As with any major earthquake, aftershocks are likely, which will cause further casualties and hamper search and rescue efforts.
In a sign of the scale of the disaster, King Mohammed VI of Morocco ordered the armed forces to mobilize air and ground assets, specialized search and rescue teams and a field surgical hospital, according to an army statement . But despite a wave of offers of help from around the world, the Moroccan government has not formally requested aid, a necessary step before outside relief teams can deploy.
In Marrakech, the famous Koutoubia Mosque, built in the 12th century, was damaged, but the extent was not immediately known. Its 69-meter (226-foot) minaret is nicknamed the “roof of Marrakech.” Moroccans also released videos showing damage to parts of the famous red walls that surround the UNESCO-listed old city.
At least 1,037 people died, mainly in Marrakech and five provinces near the epicenter of the earthquake, and another 1,204 people were injured, the Moroccan Interior Ministry reported Saturday morning. Among the injured, the ministry said, 721 were in critical condition.
Rescuers worked through the night, searching for survivors in the darkness, dust and rubble.
Most of the small village of Moulay Brahim, carved into the mountainside south of Marrakech, was uninhabitable after walls collapsed, windows smashed and more than a dozen homes were reduced to piles of concrete and of bent metal posts. At least five residents were trapped.
Ayoub Toudite said he was training with friends at the gym when “we felt a huge jolt like it was the end of the world.” Within 10 seconds, he said, everything was gone.
“We found victims, people running and children crying,” he told The Associated Press. “We have never seen anything like this, 20 dead in the area, 30 injured.”
Rescuers used hammers and axes to free a man trapped under a two-story building. People who could squeeze into this tiny space gave him water.
“We are all terrified that this will happen again,” Toudite said.
The head of a town near the quake’s epicenter told Moroccan news site 2M that several houses in nearby towns had partially or completely collapsed and that electricity and roads were cut in some places.
Abderrahim Ait Daoud, head of the town of Talat N’Yaaqoub, said authorities are working to clear roads in Al Haouz province to allow the passage of ambulances and aid to affected populations, but has stated that the large distances between mountain villages mean it will take time to learn. the extent of the damage.
The Moroccan army deployed planes, helicopters and drones and emergency services mobilized help to areas affected by the damage, but roads leading to the mountainous region around the epicenter were clogged with vehicles and blocked by collapsed rocks, slowing rescue efforts. Trucks loaded with blankets, cots and lighting equipment were trying to reach the hard-hit area, the official MAP news agency reported.
On the steep, winding switchbacks from Marrakech to Al Haouz, ambulances with sirens blaring and cars honking drove around piles of Mars-like red rocks that had fallen from the mountainside and blocked the road. Red Cross workers attempted to clear a rock blocking the two-lane highway.
Later Saturday morning in Marrakech, ambulances and motorcycles roared on the outskirts of the old city, where business mostly resumed Saturday morning. Tourists and passersby broke through roadblocks and took photos of sections of the ocher clay wall that had cracked, spilling fragments and dust onto the sidewalk and street.
World leaders offered to send aid or rescue teams as condolences poured in from countries in Europe, the Middle East and a Group of 20 summit in India. The Turkish president, whose country lost tens of thousands of people in a massive earthquake earlier this year, was among those who offered help. France and Germany, which have large populations of Moroccan origin, have also offered help, and Ukrainian and Russian leaders have expressed support for the Moroccans.
The US Geological Institute said the quake had a preliminary magnitude of 6.8 when it struck at 11:11 p.m. (2211 GMT), with shaking lasting several seconds. The US agency reported a 4.9 magnitude aftershock 19 minutes later.
The epicenter of Friday’s quake was near the town of Ighil in Al Haouz province, about 70 kilometers (43.5 miles) south of Marrakech. Al Haouz is known for its picturesque villages and valleys nestled in the High Atlas, as well as its villages built into the mountainside.
The USGS said the epicenter was 18 kilometers (11 miles) below the Earth’s surface, while Morocco’s seismic agency estimated it at 11 kilometers (7 miles) below the Earth’s surface. Such shallow earthquakes are more dangerous.
Initial reports suggest that damage and deaths have been severe across the Marrakech-Safi region, where more than 4.5 million people live, according to state figures.
Earthquakes are relatively rare in North Africa. Lahcen Mhanni, head of the seismic monitoring and warning department at the National Institute of Geophysics, told 2M TV that the earthquake was the strongest ever recorded in the region.
In 1960, a 5.8 magnitude tremor struck near the Moroccan city of Agadir and caused thousands of deaths.
The Agadir earthquake led to changes in building rules in Morocco, but many buildings, particularly rural homes, are not built to withstand such tremors.
In 2004, a magnitude 6.4 earthquake near the Mediterranean coastal city of Al Hoceima killed more than 600 people.
Friday’s earthquake was felt as far away as Portugal and Algeria, according to the Portuguese Institute of the Sea and Atmosphere and Algeria’s Civil Defense, which oversees emergency responses.
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