Marrakech CNN —
Rescuers in Morocco are battling to find survivors from Friday’s powerful earthquake, with more than 2,000 people killed and remote villages near the epicenter left in ruins.
Terrified Moroccans spent a second night in the streets, too afraid to return to their homes. Three days of mourning are underway following the country’s deadliest earthquake in decades.
The 6.8-magnitude quake struck late on Friday. It was also the strongest to hit the region around the ancient city of Marrakech in a century, according to the US Geological Survey.
So far 2,012 people have been listed killed and 1,404 others critically injured, according to Moroccan authorities, but the toll is expected to rise further as rescuers dig through the rubble of collapsed houses in remote areas of the High Atlas mountains.
In historic Marrakech, the largest city near the center of the quake and a major tourist draw, many families spent Saturday night staying out in the open, as authorities warned residents to pay close attention to aftershocks.
Hatimi, 53, slept in a central Marrakech park with her entire family, including little children. She said it got cold at night, so they stayed together. “Everybody was outside. All of the neighbors, everyone. We don’t want to go inside, everyone is scared, the shaking was so strong,” she told CNN.
People stayed away from the damaged buildings in the city’s tightly-packed medieval-era center as well as the surrounding red earth walls, where parts have crumbled.
In the Oliveraie Park in central Marrakech, hundreds of people, including children and the elderly, slept on blankets and makeshift mattresses. Families huddled together, trying to get some rest after the shock and panic from the night before.
Some brought bags of clothes and food, preparing for a possible longer stay away from their homes.
Morocco’s King Mohammed VI has issued instructions to set up a commission for relief services to provide care, housing and foods for those affected. He has also ordered mosques nationwide to hold funeral prayers, known as ‘Janazah’ prayers, at noon on Sunday for those killed.
Flags around the city are flying at half-mast to mark three days of national mourning announced by the monarchy.
In Marrakech’s airport, dozens of tourists slept on the floor in the main terminal, waiting to catch a flight out. Flights in and out of the tourism hub have been operating mostly as normal.
Scenes of destruction and despair have also played out in villages dotting the foothills of the Atlas Mountains, where the quake was centered.
These remote areas had the highest number of fatalities, with homes made from mud bricks crumbling onto residents and boulders blocking road for rescue teams to arrive.
Aerial footage showed villages perching on slopes flattened, reduced to piles of rubble in the aftermath of the quake.
Fatima, 50, told CNN her house in the mountain village of Asni had been destroyed.
“I barely got the chance to grab the kids and run out before I saw my house collapsing in front of my eyes. The neighbor’s house has also collapsed and there are two dead people under the rubble,” she said.
Mohammed, 50, from the nearby town of Ouirgane, lost four family members in the quake.
“I managed to get out safely with my two children but lost the rest. My house is gone,” he said.
Rescue operations there are ongoing.
“We are out in the streets with authorities as they try to pull the dead from the rubble. Many many people were transported to hospital in front of me. We are hoping for miracles from the rubble,” Mohammed said.
In the small town of Moulay Brahim, footage released by Reuters showed villagers digging through the rubble to pull out bodies.
Rescuers are racing against time. The first 72 hours after a quake are the most critical period for finding survivors, as the condition of people trapped and injured can quickly deteriorate beyond that window.
“They call it the ‘golden period’ because if you’re going to get people out from under the rubble, that’s the time to do it,” said Joe English, a spokesperson for the UN’s Children Fund, UNICEF.
“These towns and villages, they’re remote, they’re hard to reach…International support and solidarity is absolutely critical,” he added.
Leaders from around the world have extended their condolences to Morocco and offered international aide.
France activated an emergency aid funded by local governments, while Israel’s emergency services geared up to mobilize in Morocco.
The United Arab Emirates will establish an “air bridge” to deliver supplies, and Algeria reopened its airspace for humanitarian aid and medical flights despite having previously cut off diplomatic relations with Morocco. Turkey is also sending personnel and tents.
The World Health Organization said more than 300,000 people had been affected by the powerful tremors in Marrakech and surrounding areas.
Not since 2004 has the country seen a comparable disaster, when a 6.3-magnitude earthquake struck the port city of Al Hoceima, claiming around 630 lives.
Morocco’s worst earthquake of modern times was in 1960 near the western city of Agadir which killed at least 12,000 people.