On Friday morning, Nathaniel Williams was in the middle of packing to leave Marrakech, Morocco for the next stage of his trip when it happened.
“Out of nowhere, the ground just started to shake, started to vibrate,” he told CTV News Channel Sunday, speaking from Las Palmas, Spain. “And my partner and I looked at each other and we were just in absolute shock.”
What they were experiencing was the nation’s strongest earthquake in more than a century – a 6.8 magnitude quake which killed more than 2,100 people, a number which is still rising as rescuers strive to pull people from the rubble.
The epicentre of the quake was around 70 kilometres south of Marrakech, in the Atlas Mountains region, where Williams and his partner had been just the day before.
The couple, who come from Toronto, were back at their Airbnb on the outskirts of the city when the quake hit, packing up to head to Spain, where they are now.
As the room began to shake, they were plunged into darkness, Williams said. The light fixtures started to sway as the building shuddered. He tried to make it outside, but the floor was so unsteady that he fell as soon as he left the doorway. His partner called him back into the room where it was safer.
“We just grabbed each other and held each other and just hoped and prayed for the best,” Williams said. “But we were thinking, ‘this may be our last moments,’ honestly.”
He described it as “terrifying,” adding that the most intense shaking last 20 seconds, but that it felt like a minute.
“It was very scary. I never experienced anything like that in my life,” he said.
“We knew that in the city itself, it would be much worse, ‘cause there’s a lot of people walking the streets and restaurants, a lot of people on motorbikes, the streets are very close together, so we knew that it was going to be really bad.”
The couple were in the Atlas Mountains region on Thursday, where the earthquake would later strike. The region is known for small, scenic villages nestled in the mountains, and has been devastated by the earthquake. Numerous houses collapsed in the quake or were smashed by falling rocks from the mountains, and the winding roads were made nearly impassable by rubble, causing difficulties for rescue operations attempting to reach those still trapped.
“The region’s absolutely beautiful … the people are amazing, very kind, very friendly,” Williams said. “We spent a lot of time having food with them, exchanging stories, so we really connected with the people in the Atlas mountains, so my heart goes out to them.”
Most of those killed in the earthquake were from the Al Haouz district in the High Atlas Mountains, according to the Interior Ministry, with 1,351 deaths recorded in that region so far. At least 2,421 people are injured throughout the broader region affected by the quake.
Rural areas were more likely to have their buildings collapse in the earthquake, not only because of proximity to the epicentre of the quake, but also because they’re not designed to withstand intense tremors.
“Unfortunately mortar building like that are prone to collapse,” Russell Pysklywec, professor of geophysics at the University of Toronto, told CTV National News. “Really, what we have to do is build for these events.”
In Marrakech, many buildings are also seriously damaged. Tourists and residents lined up Sunday to donate blood to help the wounded.
A magnitude 3.9 aftershock rippled through the region on Sunday as well, according to the U.S. Geological Survey, but it was unclear if it caused additional damage.
Williams described walking through the streets on Friday after the earthquake as a shock.
“We just seen debris and rubble everywhere, especially blocking the entrances to a lot of these smaller homes. It was just absolute chaos. Children were crying, everyone was just in the streets, terrified to go back into their homes – it was very sad.”
Back in Canada, the Moroccan Association of Toronto has been reaching out to those in the area affected by the earthquake.
Narjiss Lazrak told CTV News Channel on Sunday that they’ve heard more back from some regions than others.
“Some areas that the houses have been destroyed,” she said. “Some houses no access to water, no food, nothing.”
Others experienced the quake as nothing more than a “movement” and then “a big loud noise that scared everybody,” she said.
So far, Global Affairs Canada is not aware of any Canadian citizen injured or killed in the earthquake. In a Sunday statement, the agency said that it has been in contact with approximately 50 Canadian citizens in Morocco and is providing them assistance.
“Our hearts are with the families and friends of the people who lost their lives in the earthquake, as well as with all people affected,” Global Affairs said.
Lazrak said they’ve heard from those on the ground in Marrakech that the rescue process has been difficult and harrowing at times.
“It’s hard because if you are getting the big machinery on areas like this, it might hurt other people who are under debris, so that’s what makes it very challenging, because we want to rescue those people under debris,” Lazrak said.
“Also, some areas (authorities) couldn’t get to them because of the height, or because of the roads are broken.”
Moroccan Montreal city councillor Abdelhaq Sari told the Canadian Press on Saturday that it’s been difficult for members of the Moroccan community in Montreal to get in contact with family members in rural areas of the country following the earthquake.
He is calling for the Canadian government to help with aid efforts.
“Morocco is a friend of Canada,” Sari said. “If we can help it will be very, very appreciated.”
Numerous countries and agencies have offered aid to Morocco. A Spanish search-and-rescue team has arrived in Marrakech, according to Spain’s Emergency Military Unit. So far, Morocco has not officially requested international assistance, which Global Affairs Canada noted in its Sunday statement.
“Global Affairs Canada (GAC) stands ready to assist the people of Morocco at this difficult time,” the statement reads. “GAC is in close contact with key humanitarian partners to assess needs, should the Government of Morocco welcome assistance. These partners include the UN, Red Cross and NGOs.”
The Moroccan community in Canada is already pulling together aid efforts. Lazrak said that they’ve begun to raise money to help those who were affected by the earthquake, and have seen a lot of interest.
“We also being approached by so many organizations from all over Canada to help fundraise for us,” she said.
Similar fundraising is occurring in Windsor, Ont., where the city’s Muslim community is gathering funds through the Windsor Islamic Association. They’ve already raised $13,000.
With files from CTV National News’ Melanie Nagy, The Canadian Press