Rescuers Seek Survivors from Morocco's Quake of the Century
Sam Metz and Mosa'ab Eishamy READ TIME: 4 MIN.
Moroccans worked Sunday to rescue survivors and prayed for victims of the nation's strongest earthquake in more than a century, while soldiers and workers brought water and supplies to mountain villages in ruins as international aid crews remained in limbo waiting for the nation to request their help. More than 2,000 people are dead – a number that is expected to rise.
Those left homeless by the destruction of Friday night's earthquake slept outside Saturday, in the streets of the ancient city of Marrakech or under makeshift canopies in Atlas Mountain towns like Moulay Brahim, among the hardest-hit. The worst destruction is in small, rural communities that are hard for rescuers to reach because of the mountainous terrain.
The magnitude-6.8 earthquake sent people racing from their beds into the streets and toppled buildings in mountainous villages and cities not built to withstand such a mighty quake. Some 2,012 people were confirmed dead and at least 2,059 more people were injured – 1,404 critically – Morocco's Interior Ministry reported Saturday night.
"We felt a huge shake like it was doomsday," Moulay Brahim resident Ayoub Toudite said. "Ten seconds and everything was gone."
Flags were lowered across Morocco, as King Mohammed VI ordered three days of national mourning starting Sunday. The army mobilized specialized search and rescue teams, and the king ordered water, food rations and shelter to be provided to those who lost their homes.
The king called for mosques across the kingdom to hold prayers Sunday for the victims, many of whom were buried Saturday amid the frenzy of rescue work nearby.
Some Moroccans complained on social networks that the government wasn't allowing more international help.
Aid offers have poured in from around the world and the U.N. said it had a team in Morocco coordinating with authorities there about how international partners can provide support. The U.N. estimated more than 300,000 people have been affected in Marrakech and the surrounding area.
In a sign that Morocco may be prepared to accept help from outside, the Spanish military said it had sent an Air Force plane carrying an urban search and rescue team of 56 soldiers and 4 dogs to Marrakech to help. Foreign Minister José Manuel Albares said in a radio interview that the deployment was in response to a bilateral request for help from Moroccan authorities.
About 100 teams comprising a total of 3,500 rescuers from around the world are registered with a U.N. platform and ready to deploy in Morocco but are awaiting a green light from Moroccan authorities, according to the founder of aid group Rescuers Without Borders.
Arnaud Fraisse said the group's team got stuck at the Paris airport Sunday waiting for permission from Morocco to enter the country.
"We know there is a great urgency to save people and dig under the remains of buildings," he said. "There are people dying under the rubble, and we cannot do anything to save them."
The epicenter of Friday's quake – the biggest to hit the North African country in 120 years – was near the town of Ighil in Al Haouz Province, roughly 70 kilometers (44 miles) south of Marrakech. Al Haouz is known for scenic villages and valleys tucked in the High Atlas Mountains.
About 45 kilometers (28 miles) northeast of the quake epicenter, fallen walls exposed the innards of damaged homes, their rubble sliding down hills. People in Moulay Brahim, a poor rural community of less than 3,000 people, live in homes made of clay brick and cinder block. Many of the houses are either not safe or no longer standing.
Devastation gripped each town along the High Atlas' steep and winding switchbacks, with homes folding in on themselves and people crying as boys and helmet-clad police carried the dead through the streets.
"I was asleep when the earthquake struck. I could not escape because the roof fell on me. I was trapped. I was saved by my neighbors who cleared the rubble with their bare hands," said Fatna Bechar in Moulay Brahim. "Now, I am living with them in their house because mine was completely destroyed."
Hamid Idsalah, a 72-year-old mountain guide, said he and many others remained alive but had little future to look forward to as they lack the financial means to rebound.
Some Marrakech shop owners returned to work Sunday morning, after the king encouraged economic activities to resume nationwide and ordered plans to begin to reconstruct destroyed buildings.
For much of Saturday in historic Marrakech, people could be seen on state TV clustering in the streets, afraid to go back inside buildings that might still be unstable.
The city's famous Koutoubia Mosque, built in the 12th century, was damaged, but the extent was not immediately clear. Moroccans also posted videos showing damage to parts of the famous red walls that surround the old city, a UNESCO World Heritage site.
Police, emergency vehicles and people fleeing in shared taxis spent hours traversing unpaved roads through the High Atlas in stop-and-go traffic, often exiting their cars to help clear giant boulders from routes known to be rugged and difficult even before Friday's earthquake.
"It felt like a bomb went off," 34-year-old Mohamed Messi said.
The U.S. Geological Survey said the quake had a preliminary magnitude of 6.8 when it hit at 11:11 p.m., with shaking that lasted several seconds. The agency added that a magnitude-4.9 aftershock hit 19 minutes later. The collision of the African and Eurasian tectonic plates occurred at a relatively shallow depth, which makes a quake more dangerous.
In 1960, a magnitude-5.8 tremor struck near the Moroccan city of Agadir and caused thousands of deaths. That quake prompted changes in construction rules in Morocco, but many buildings, especially rural homes, are not built to withstand such tremors.
In 2004, a magnitude-6.4 earthquake near the Mediterranean coastal city of Al Hoceima left more than 600 dead.
Friday's quake was felt as far away as Portugal and Algeria, according to the Portuguese Institute for Sea and Atmosphere and Algeria's Civil Defense agency, which oversees emergency response.
Associated Press writers Angela Charlton in Paris, Ahmed Hatem in Cairo, and Brian Melley and Hadia Bakkar in London contributed to this report.