MARRAKECH, Morocco — A rare 6.8-magnitude earthquake struck Morocco, causing people to rush out of their beds at night and onto the streets and collapsing buildings in mountainous towns and in ancient cities not built to withstand such force. More than 2,000 people died and the death toll is expected to rise as rescuers battled Saturday to reach the most remote and worst-affected areas across rock-strewn roads.
The quake, which was the strongest to hit the North African country in 120 years, sent people running into the dark streets in terror and disbelief on Friday night. One man said that it started raining plates and tapestries, and that people were collapsing. The quake toppled stone and masonry walls, covering entire communities in rubble.
Devastation gripped every town along the steep, winding curves of the High Atlas in similar fashion: Homes folding in on themselves and mothers and fathers crying as children and helmeted police carried the dead through the streets.
Remote villages like those in the drought-stricken Ouargane valley were left largely cut off from the world when they lost power and cell phone service. By noon, people were outside mourning the deaths of their neighbors, recording the damage with their cellphone cameras and saying to each other: “God save us.”
Hamid Idsalah, a 72-year-old mountain guide, said he and many others were still alive but had a bleak future. That was evident in the short term — with the remains of his kitchen reduced to dust — and in the long term — as he and many others lack the financial means to recover.
“I can’t rebuild my house. I don’t know what I’ll do. Still, I’m alive, so I’ll wait,” he said as he walked through the town, an oasis in the desert overlooking red rock hills, herds of goats and a glistening salt lake. “I feel heartbroken.”
Images could be seen on state television of people gathering in the streets of historic Marrakech, afraid to re-enter buildings that might still be unstable. Many wrapped themselves in blankets and tried to sleep outdoors.
The city’s famous Koutoubia Mosque, built in the 12th century, was damaged, but the extent was not immediately clear. Its 69-meter (226-foot) minaret is known as the “roof of Marrakech.” Moroccans also posted videos showing damage to parts of the famous red walls that surround the old city, a UNESCO World Heritage site.
In Marrakech, the famous Koutoubia Mosque, built in the 12th century, suffered damage, although the extent of it is currently unknown. Its minaret, 69 meters (226 feet) high, is known as the “roof of Marrakech.” Moroccans posted videos online showing damaged parts of the famous red wall surrounding the UNESCO World Heritage medina.
At least 2,012 people died, the majority in Marrakesh and five provinces near the quake’s epicenter, and at least 2,059 others were injured, the Moroccan Interior Ministry reported late Saturday. Of the injured, 1,404 were in critical condition.
“The problem is that where destructive earthquakes are rare, structures simply aren’t built strong enough to withstand strong ground shaking, so many collapse, causing large numbers of casualties,” he said. Bill McGuire, emeritus professor of geophysical and climate risks at University College London.
In a sign of the enormous magnitude of the disaster, King Mohammed VI ordered the Moroccan 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 the flood of offers of help from around the world, the Moroccan government had not formally requested help, a necessary step before external rescue teams could be deployed.
The epicenter of the quake was located near the town of Ighil, in Al Hauz, some 70 kilometers (43.5 miles) south of Marrakech. Al Hauz is known for its spectacular landscapes of the High Atlas and for the Amazigh villages nestled on the slopes of the mountains.
Police, emergency vehicles and people fleeing in shared taxis spent hours traversing unpaved roads across the High Atlas in intermittent traffic, often getting out of their vehicles to help clear giant boulders from routes known to be rugged and difficult long before Friday’s earthquake. In Ijjoukak, a village in the area surrounding Toubkal, North Africa’s highest peak, residents estimated that nearly 200 structures had been leveled.
Morocco will observe three days of national mourning with flags at half-mast at all public facilities, the official MAP news agency reported.
World leaders offered to send aid or rescue teams as condolences poured in from countries in Europe, the Middle East and the Group of 20 summit in India. The president of Turkey, which lost tens of thousands of people in a strong earthquake earlier this year, was among those who proposed help. France and Germany, with large populations of Moroccan origin, also offered to help, and Ukrainian and Russian authorities expressed their support for the Moroccans.
In an exceptional measure, neighboring rival Algeria offered to open its airspace to allow eventual humanitarian aid or medical evacuation flights to travel to and from Morocco. Algeria closed airspace when its government broke diplomatic relations with Morocco in 2021 over a series of issues. The countries have a decades-long dispute involving the territory of Western Sahara.
The United States Geological Survey reported that the earthquake had a preliminary magnitude of 6.8 when it occurred at 11:11 p.m. (22:11 GMT), with tremors that lasted several seconds. The US agency indicated that a magnitude 4.9 aftershock occurred just 19 minutes later. The collision of the African and Eurasian tectonic plates occurred at a relatively shallow depth, making an earthquake more dangerous.
Associated Press writers Angela Charlton in Paris, Ahmed Hatem in Cairo, and Brian Melley and Hadia Bakkar in London contributed to this report.