Moroccan government reports over 800 fatalities due to powerful earthquake. In a rare and formidable seismic event, Morocco was shaken to its core late on a Friday night, resulting in the tragic loss of over 800 lives and extensive structural damage spanning from remote villages nestled in the Atlas Mountains to the historically rich city of Marrakech. However, the full extent of this catastrophe remains unknown as rescue operations face the daunting challenge of navigating through treacherous, boulder-strewn roads leading to the most affected mountainous areas.
The inhabitants, jolted from their slumber by the violent tremors, spilled onto the streets, gripped by a sense of terror and disbelief. Witnesses described the horrifying scene: a visitor in a nearby apartment recounted how dishes and wall ornaments rained down upon them, causing people to be thrown off their feet and chairs. Another woman shared her account of fleeing her home in the wake of an “intense vibration.” A man cradling a child revealed how he was rudely awakened in his bed by the relentless shaking. State television broadcasts depicted residents huddled together in the streets of Marrakech, too afraid to re-enter potentially unstable buildings, seeking solace under blankets as they braved the night outdoors.
With a seismic magnitude measuring 6.8 on the Richter scale, this earthquake stands as the most powerful to strike Morocco in over a century. It brought down buildings and walls that were constructed from stone and masonry, never designed to withstand the ferocity of such tremors.
Bill McGuire, a respected authority in the field of geophysics and climate hazards at University College London, shed light on the grim reality: “The problem lies in the fact that regions unaccustomed to destructive earthquakes tend to construct buildings that lack the necessary robustness to withstand intense ground shaking. Consequently, many structures collapse, leading to a high number of casualties.” He anticipated that the final death toll could rise into the thousands, given the likelihood of aftershocks that would further compound the devastation and impede search and rescue efforts.
Demonstrating the magnitude of this disaster, King Mohammed VI of Morocco promptly ordered the mobilization of the armed forces, deploying both air and land assets, specialized search and rescue teams, and even a surgical field hospital, as conveyed in a military statement. Yet, despite the outpouring of international offers for assistance, the Moroccan government had not yet issued a formal request for aid, a prerequisite for the deployment of foreign rescue teams.
Marrakech, renowned for its historical significance, bore the brunt of the earthquake’s fury. The iconic Koutoubia Mosque, dating back to the 12th century, sustained damage, though the extent remained unclear. Its towering 69-meter minaret, often referred to as the “roof of Marrakech,” faced potential structural impairment. Videos posted by Moroccans revealed damage to sections of the famous red walls encompassing the ancient city, a UNESCO World Heritage site. According to Morocco’s Interior Ministry, at least 820 lives were lost, primarily in Marrakech and the five provinces closest to the epicenter, while an additional 672 individuals were injured, with 205 categorized as seriously wounded.
Throughout the night, rescue teams tirelessly combed through the darkness, dust, and debris, tirelessly searching for survivors.
In the small village of Moulay Brahim, nestled into the mountains south of Marrakech, most structures became uninhabitable, with crumbling walls, shattered windows, and a multitude of homes reduced to concrete rubble and twisted metal supports. Tragically, several residents found themselves trapped under the ruins.
Ayoub Toudite recounted his harrowing experience, having been at the gym with friends when “we felt a colossal tremor, as if doomsday had arrived.” In a mere ten seconds, everything they knew was obliterated. He described the chaotic scene: “We discovered casualties, people fleeing, and children crying. We’ve never witnessed anything of this magnitude before—20 lives lost in the vicinity and 30 injuries.”
Rescue teams employed hammers and axes to liberate a man pinned beneath the wreckage of a two-story building, while those who could squeeze into the narrow space provided him with water.
“We are all gripped by fear that such a catastrophe might recur,” Toudite admitted.
The head of a nearby town, situated close to the earthquake’s epicenter, reported that several homes in neighboring towns had either partially or completely collapsed. Electricity and road access were disrupted in various locations. Abderrahim Ait Daoud, overseeing the town of Talat N’Yaaqoub, emphasized the authorities’ efforts to clear roads in Al Haouz Province, thereby facilitating the passage of ambulances and aid to affected populations. However, the vast distances separating mountain villages meant that determining the full extent of the damage would require time.
The Moroccan military deployed aircraft, helicopters, and drones, while emergency services orchestrated aid operations in the affected regions. Unfortunately, the roads leading to the mountainous region surrounding the epicenter were clogged with vehicles and obstructed by fallen rocks, significantly hampering rescue endeavors. Trucks laden with blankets, camp cots, and lighting equipment struggled to reach the hard-hit area, as reported by the official news agency MAP. Along the treacherous switchbacks from Marrakech to Al Haouz, ambulances blared their sirens, and vehicles swerved around piles of reddish rock that had cascaded from the mountainside, blocking the way. Red Cross personnel labored to clear a massive boulder obstructing the two-lane highway.
In Marrakech, as the morning light gradually broke, the city saw a resumption of normalcy, with ambulances and motorcycles weaving through the streets. Despite roadblocks, tourists and passersby navigated the obstacles, pausing to capture images of the cracked clay ochre wall, which had shed fragments and dust onto the sidewalks and streets.
Leaders from around the world extended offers of assistance and condolences, as news of the disaster spread. Nations across Europe, the Middle East, and attendees of a Group of 20 summit in India expressed their willingness to dispatch aid and rescue teams. Turkey’s president, having experienced a massive earthquake in his own country earlier that year, was among those proposing assistance. France and Germany, both home to sizable populations of Moroccan origin, also offered their support, while the leaders of Ukraine and Russia expressed solidarity with the people of Morocco.
According to the U.S. Geological Survey, the earthquake initially registered a magnitude of 6.8 on the Richter scale when it struck at 11:11 p.m. (2211 GMT), with the ground trembling for several seconds. The U.S. agency reported a subsequent aftershock measuring 4.9 in magnitude, occurring 19 minutes later.
The epicenter of this seismic upheaval, which occurred on that fateful Friday, lay near the town of Ighil in Al Haouz Province, approximately 70 kilometers (43.5 miles) to the south of Marrakech. Al Haouz is renowned for its picturesque villages and valleys nestled amidst the High Atlas Mountains, with villages seemingly carved into the mountainsides.
The U.S. Geological Survey noted that the epicenter was located 18 kilometers (11 miles) beneath the Earth’s surface, while Morocco’s own seismic agency estimated it at a depth of 11
kilometers (7 miles). Shallow earthquakes like this one are known to pose greater risks.
Initial reports painted a bleak picture, with severe damage and significant loss of life reported throughout the Marrakech-Safi region, home to more than 4.5 million people according to official figures. Earthquakes are infrequent occurrences in North Africa, making this event particularly devastating. Lahcen Mhanni, the Head of the Seismic Monitoring and Warning Department at the National Institute of Geophysics, revealed to 2M TV that this earthquake marked the most powerful ever recorded in the region. Notably, a magnitude 5.8 earthquake in 1960 near the Moroccan city of Agadir had resulted in a catastrophic loss of life.
The Agadir earthquake had prompted revisions in Morocco’s construction regulations, but many buildings, especially those in rural areas, were not engineered to withstand such seismic forces.
In 2004, another devastating earthquake, measuring 6.4 in magnitude, had struck near the Mediterranean coastal city of Al Hoceima, resulting in over 600 casualties.
Friday’s earthquake sent shockwaves far beyond Morocco, with reports of its tremors reaching as far as Portugal and Algeria, as confirmed by the Portuguese Institute for Sea and Atmosphere and Algeria’s Civil Defense agency, responsible for emergency response efforts.