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Families sit outside their destroyed homes after an earthquake in Moulay Brahim village, near Marrakesh. Image Credit: AP

Rabat: His wife woke him and his one-year-old daughter shortly after 11pm. They had to leave immediately, she told him.

“It was something atrocious,” Aziz Taki remembers thinking. He had experienced earthquakes before, but “not like this.”

He lived on the ground floor of his family home in Marrakesh and first got his wife and daughter into the alley. Then he went upstairs to get his father, mother and two brothers.

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“But my dad is so attached to the house,” Taki said of his 93-year-old father, Omar. “So he wouldn’t leave.”

A collapsing roof coaxed Omar outside.

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The foot of a man stuck under rubble while a rescue operation for him is underway, after an earthquake, in Moulay Brahim village. Image Credit: AP

During Friday’s late-night earthquakes across Morocco, witnesses and survivors recounted rushing out of buildings to areas filled with dust and debris and people. Some were also tourists, who joined the cascade of residents at nearby squares to distance themselves from buildings that could fall at any minute.

The quake’s epicentre was in the remote and historically underserved Al Haouz province, about 44 miles south of Marrakesh. It was felt far-beyond, in Marrakesh, Casablanca, Rabat, Fez and other cities.

The 6.8-magnitude quake, which struck at 11:11pm local time, was the strongest to hit the area in more than a century.

People run, as a powerful earthquake hits, in Marrakesh. Image Credit: Reuters

Complete mess

Bodies littered streets, some of the more than 2,000 people who were killed across the country.

“It was a complete mess,” Taki, 40, said over the phone.

Once Omar agreed to leave, the family entered one of the many narrow alleys that made up the old city of Marrakesh, where they saw what seemed like their entire neighbourhood trying to get out.

Dust was everywhere. Everyone was screaming. Pushed up against each other, the neighbours moved toward a nearby square, where they hoped they’d be safe from collapsing buildings.

Five or 10 minutes later, Taki’s family reached the Bab Elmaleh square.

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Hussain Adnaie carries belongings out of his damaged house in Moulay Brahim on September 10, 2023. Image Credit: Reuters

Taki, a grocer, left his family and went back into the neighbourhood to help others escape and to get blankets. They realised they’d be sleeping in the square.

Back in the neighbourhood, he thinks he saw eight people dying or already dead, including a mother and her young son, and the body of a man who had jumped out of a building.

Near his house, Taki saw a neighbour in his 30s stumble outside his home, covered in dust. He took three or four steps and collapsed in the spot where he would die.

“I was heartbroken,” Taki said. “Imagine the fact that the person who is dying in front of you was once a neighbour and a friend.”

Taki ran into his house, grabbed the blankets and saw what remained.

Toddler in shock

It looked like “someone took a huge knife and sliced through the corners of my house,” he said. The four walls had separated. Authorities later told him the house could collapse at any moment.

He returned to the square, where he would spend the night watching his neighbours. His toddler, he said, was in shock. It seemed like at least 800 people had congregated in the square with blankets.

Few seemed to sleep.

Nearby, Sebastian Rosemont was settling down with his wife, Genia, in a Marrakesh guesthouse when the shaking began.

It was stronger than any earthquake Rosemont, 32, had ever felt.

Residents flee their homes after an earthquake in Moulay Brahim. Image Credit: AP

“It just seemed to keep shaking,” he said when reached by phone Saturday evening.

He and his wife crouched in the second-floor room, waiting for it to end.

The earthquake shook Morocco seven months after one killed more than 50,000 people in Turkey and Syria, devastating entire communities. Rosemont had watched from afar the effect of the aftershock there, and on Saturday, he wanted to get out.

“Immediately I was thinking about Turkey,” he said. “Immediately, I thought about trying to get outside.”

When the shaking stopped, they ran out as fast as they could. The guesthouse staff told them to go to a nearby square. They stepped out to what Rosemont described as a “haze.”

The dust made it hard to see, but the rubble was strewn across the street as people yelled. It seemed balconies and facades had fallen. They saw someone vomit.

A 4.9 magnitude aftershock was recorded 20 minutes after the first one.

Crumbling alleys

Rosemont also saw people going back into the crumbling alleys to carry older residents in wheelchairs and those who were injured to the square, which filled up in 30 minutes.

Soon, an emergency rescue crew emerged from an alley, carrying someone on a stretcher, wrapped in a blanket. Rosemont couldn’t tell whether they were alive. The rescuers put the person in an ambulance and went back into the alleys.

About 45 minutes later, well past midnight, four rescuers, each holding a limb, carried another person out of the narrow streets. It wasn’t clear whether the person was conscious or how serious the injury was.

The guesthouse owner eventually brought out a big blanket and water for his guests who were huddled in the square. Rosemont told his family in D.C. that he was okay. He and his wife still had a week left in their trip. They were supposed to go hiking in the mountains near the quake’s epicentre.

A look at the deadliest quakes over the past 25 years
* September 8, 2023: In Morocco, a magnitude 6.8 temblor kills more than 2,000 people.
* February 6, 2023: In Turkey and Syria, a magnitude 7.8 earthquake kills more than 21,600 people.
* April 25, 2015: In Nepal, more than 8,800 people are killed by a magnitude 7.8 earthquake.
* March 11, 2011: A magnitude 9.0 quake off the northeast coast of Japan triggers a tsunami, killing more than 18,400 people.
* Janury 12, 2010: In Haiti, over 100,000 people are killed by a magnitude 7.0 quake. The government estimated a staggering 316,000 dead, but the scale of the destruction made an accurate count impossible.
* May 12, 2008: A magnitude 7.9 quake strikes eastern Sichuan in China, resulting in over 87,500 deaths.
* May 27, 2006: More than 5,700 people die when a magnitude 6.3 quake hits Indonesia’s Java island.
* October 8, 2005: A magnitude 7.6 earthquake kills over 80,000 people in Pakistan’s Kashmir region.
* December 26, 2004: A magnitude 9.1 quake in Indonesia triggers an Indian Ocean tsunami, killing about 230,000 people in a dozen countries.
* December 26, 2003: A magnitude 6.6 earthquake hits southeastern Iran, causing more than 20,000 deaths.
* January 26, 2001: A magnitude 7.6 quake strikes Gujarat in India, killing as many as 20,000 people.
* August 17, 1999: A magnitude 7.6 earthquake hits Izmit, Turkey, killing about 18,000 people.
-- AP

For now, they’d just try to stay safe.

Sometime after 3 a.m., the owner of the guesthouse said the structure was secure and everyone could go back. They went to sleep in their room about 4 a.m.

The next morning, they retraced their steps in the city they’d arrived in two days prior. Some shops seem unscathed, while others lost tops of some walls or worse. Rosemont and his wife had gone on a tour where the guide told them the ancient ruins in Marrakesh were so well preserved because of the rarity of an earthquake.

Some of those ruins were damaged Friday night.

Search and rescue efforts continued Saturday as the number of dead and injured jumped. Residents lined up to donate blood, and aid organizations and governments across the world prepared to help.

Taki had another brother who lived in al-Haouz. He said that sibling lost his three-story house and the structure that keeps his cattle. Some of his animals died too, ruining his business. Taki said at least 20 people were killed in his brother’s rural village.

“In that region, they are out of reach,” he said.

As the sun set Saturday in Marrakesh, Taki said he planned to stay with his family about six miles away from his partially collapsed home. In the morning, he expects to go back into the alleys and see what else he can do to help.