The quake struck in Morocco’s High Atlas mountain range shortly after 11 p.m. local time at the relatively shallow depth of 18.5 kilometers (11.4 miles), USGS said, with the epicenter located about 72 kilometers (44.7 miles) southwest of Marrakech, a city of some 840,000 people and a popular tourist destination.
At least 632 people were killed, and 329 others were wounded – including 51 in critical condition, state-run TV Al Aoula reported, citing Morocco’s Interior Ministry.
Many spent the night on the streets in multiple cities fearful of aftershocks as a desperate mission to locate those trapped in the rubble got underway. Health authorities also called on people to donate blood to help victims.
Most deaths occurred in mountain areas close to the epicenter that were hard to reach, authorities said, and rescue teams were having difficulty reaching the worst affected areas after roads were damaged, Al Aoula reported.
The Royal Moroccan Armed Forces warned that residents to pay close attention to follow up tremors.
“We remind you of the need to exercise caution and take safety measures due to the risk of aftershocks,” the military wrote on X, formerly known as Twitter.
The USGS said Friday night’s quake was unusually strong for that part of Morocco.
“Earthquakes of this size in the region are uncommon, but not unexpected. Since 1900, there have been no earthquakes M6 (magnitude 6) and larger within 500 km of this earthquake, and only 9 M5 (magnitude 5) and larger earthquakes,” USGS said.
The US body predicted that “significant damage is likely and the disaster is potentially widespread”, noting that many people in the area reside in structures that are “highly vulnerable to earthquake shaking”.
Al-Aoula television on Saturday showed multiple buildings collapsed near the epicenter and reported that thousands of people had fled their homes after the country’s National Institute of Geophysics warned of aftershocks.
Most houses in the mountain village of Asni near the epicenter were damaged, Montasir Itri, a local resident, told Reuters.
“Our neighbours are under the rubble and people are working hard to rescue them using available means in the village,” he said.
Tremors were also felt further west near Taroudant, where a resident said he had fled his home and there had been aftershocks following the initial quake, according to Reuters.
“The earth shook for about 20 seconds. Doors opened and shut by themselves as I rushed downstairs from the second floor,” teacher Hamid Afkar told Reuters.
Historic town damaged
In the old city of Marrakech, a UNESCO World Heritage site, some residents were injured as buildings and city walls were damaged and partially collapsed, according to CNN researcher Benjamin Brown who is on the ground.
Brown, who was at the rooftop of his hotel when the ground started shaking, told CNN Newsroom with Michael Holmes that it took a few seconds for everyone to realize what was going on.
People initially remained calm as they made their way out of the narrow alleyways to find a safe place outdoors, many in their pajamas, according to Brown.
“It kicked in a couple of minutes later, screaming began… when the extent of the injuries became apparent, that’s really when the panic kicked in,” he said.
“I saw many people brought out of their homes in stretchers or wrapped in carpets…some of them with what appeared to be quite serious head injuries with lots of blood.”
At least one ambulance had to turn away an injured woman because it was already full with injured people, Brown said.
Some parts of the historic red walls that surround Marrakesh’s old city center – which were first laid out in the early 12th century – also crumbled, he added.
Videos and photos show open spaces in the city, including squares and traffic roundabouts, filled with people, some setting up makeshift beds to stay the night.
Some houses in the city have collapsed and people were moving debris by hand while they waited for heavy equipment, local resident Id Waaziz Hassan told Reuters news agency.
Another Marrakech resident, Brahim Himmi, told Reuters he saw ambulances coming out of the old town and that many building facades were damaged. He said people were frightened and were staying outside in case of another quake.
“The chandelier fell from the ceiling and I ran out. I’m still in the road with my children and we’re scared,” Houda Hafsi, a 43-year-old Marrakech resident, told Reuters.
A former imperial city with a history that dates back nearly 1,000 years, Marrakech is tightly packed with medieval-era palaces, mosques, gardens and bustling markets. Its historic quarters are surrounded by red earth walls and filled with buildings constructed in red sandstone, which gave the city its nickname the “red city.”
Before the Covid pandemic, Marrakech drew nearly three million tourists in 2019.
In addition to its rich culture and history, Marrakech is also Mocorro’s four largest city and a major economic center.
Shaking was also felt in the capital Rabat, some 350km north of of the High Atlas mountains, Reuters said citing eyewitnesses.
Reuters contributed to this report.