In Iraq, crashing boulders, collapsed homes and a town on edge after powerful earthquake

Residents gather outside a leveled building in the mountainous town of Darbandikhan in Iraq's semiautonomous Kurdish region on Nov. 13, 2017, after a powerful earthquake.
(Shawn Mohammed / AFP/Getty Images)

In the craggy mountains that separate northern Iraq from Iran, people are used to earthquakes. The area sits atop a major fault line that frequently sends shock waves through towns and villages.

But few here can recall anything like the magnitude 7.3 temblor that rocked the region Sunday night.

“Last year there was a small one, but this is crazy,” Ahsan Amin, a 42-year-old security guard, said Tuesday as he surveyed one of several flattened homes in the Iraqi town of Darbandikhan.


Although most of the death and destruction occurred on the Iranian side of the border, at least 10 people were killed and hundreds injured in Iraq.

The area around Darbandikhan, less than 15 miles from the epicenter, suffered the worst of it: five dead, scores injured and more than 2,000 displaced in the town alone.

Residents went to pay their respects Tuesday at mourning tents erected by the families of the dead. The survivors were on edge, whispering rumors that another big one was on the way or that a secret Iranian nuclear test caused the quake.

Alarming cracks appeared at the top of a dam holding back the Diyala River, raising fears that it might burst. Security officers with megaphones drove through low-lying, riverside neighborhoods late Sunday night, urging residents to evacuate immediately.

About a dozen residents crowded around Mayor Nasih Hassan at his office Tuesday, demanding to know when they could return home or what other shelter was available.

“I don’t want money. I don’t want food. I just want tents to put my family in!” shouted Ahmed Mohammed, a 42-year-old policeman. “Our houses aren’t safe because of the dam.”


Hassan explained that engineers were inspecting the 56-year-old structure to determine the extent of the damage and what repairs were needed. Until they complete their work, he said, he can’t tell anyone it is safe to go home.

Although initial assessments suggested the damage was not severe, the dam’s manager, Rahman Khani, said the cracks had weakened the structure, which had not been serviced in several years.

“We are trying to reduce the pressure on the dam by releasing some water from the reservoir,” he said.

The quake sent boulders tumbling down the surrounding hills, blocking roads to nearby villages and flattening cars. Several landed outside a control room where Abdullah Karim, 48, was monitoring images from the dam’s closed-circuit cameras before walls crumbled, furniture crashed to the floor and he sprinted for the door.

The scene at the dam, a favorite spot for picnicking and fishing, was more peaceful Tuesday. Curious locals examined the jagged cracks and posed for selfies in front of a towering boulder.

Schools were still closed in the town below, but shops were open, and the streets buzzed with traffic.


Inspectors were going door to door assessing the damage to homes and businesses. More than 100 buildings have been declared structurally unsound, and the number keeps growing, according to the exhausted mayor, who said he hadn’t been home since the quake struck.

The temblor also caused extensive damage to the town’s power station, water pumps and hospitals, officials said. Medical personnel treated the injured Sunday in a tent erected outside a public health center, before sending the most serious cases by ambulance to the provincial capital, Sulaymaniya, about 35 miles to the north. Fourteen quake victims remained hospitalized Tuesday.

Among those injured and killed were ethnic Arabs who had fled to Iraq’s semiautonomous Kurdish region to escape the war against Islamic State militants and sectarian fighting.

As many as 20 families were crammed into a three-story structure that collapsed into rubble on a busy intersection at the edge of town, according to neighbors who dug through the wreckage with their bare hands Sunday to help pull out trapped occupants.

“They were crying for help,” said Saif Ali, 23, who moved to the town from the conflict-ridden province of Diyala as a teenager. “We pulled eight people out, but two of them were dead, a mother and a baby.”

His mother, visibly agitated, pointed to a pile of rubble near the front door to their apartment, part of a balcony wall that was shorn off by the quake.


“It’s the first time we’ve experienced something like this,” Ali explained.

Taha Mohammed, who spent years working in construction, invested his life savings in a small supermarket with a two-floor apartment above it for his wife and children. He was sitting in the shop discussing politics with a neighbor late Sunday when the building started to sway and the lights went out.

The pair raced into the street with just seconds to spare before the building pancaked on top of where they had been sitting.

“I was just praying and shouting, ‘Where are my children? Where is my wife?’” Mohammed said.

Wide-eyed neighbors pointed out a listing concrete column that prevented the upper floors from collapsing on top of his family members as they struggled down the stairs.

“When I saw them, I didn’t recognize them. They were covered with dust,” Mohammed said. “I don’t know how they made it out…. It must have been God’s doing.”


Twitter: @alexzavis