The temblor, which the U.S. Geological Service said measured 6.5 on the Richter scale, devastated the historic city of Bam, leveling as many as 60 percent of the buildings in the city of 80,000.
Iranian state television reported the death toll is likely to reach 5,000 – 6,000, but at least one official told the Associated Press that the local authorities had told him the number could soar to as high as 10,000.
Footage from helicopters showed the quake, which struck at 5:30 a.m. local time, had leveled row upon row of buildings, while leaving other structures apparently untouched. The timing of the temblor also caused officials to worry the toll could be higher than current numbers.
“The quake hit the city when most of the people were in bed, raising fears that the death toll may go higher,” Hasan Khoshrou, a legislator from the region, told the AP.
State television also reported at least two hospitals in the city had collapsed, trapping staff and leaving the remaining hospitals overrun.
“There are a lot of dead and injured in Bam city and everything is being done to take them out,” Reuters quotes Kerman province governor Mohammad Ali Karimi as saying.
International offers for aid and assistance began pouring in Friday. Germany and Russia responded immediately by offering to dispatch expert teams to aid in the location and recovery of those trapped in collapsed buildings.
“In accordance with an order from the head of state Emergencies Ministry specialists are preparing to fly to Iran to give help to the injured,” said a statement from President Vladimir Putin’s press service after a meeting with Emergencies Minister Sergei Shoigu.
In Bam, workers with the International Red Crescent, the Islamic equivalent of the Red Cross, continued to work in the ancient city.
Witnesses told Reuters that public squares throughout the city were packed with crying children and those left homeless. Witnesses also reported seeing corpses covered by blankets being loaded into vans.
“I have lost all my family. My parents, my grandmother and two sisters are under the rubble,” one girl told Reuters.
Many of the older structures in Bam, an ancient stopping point along the Silk Road, have been toppled.
“The historic quarter of the city has been completely destroyed and caused great human loss,” said Mehran Nourbakhsh, chief spokesman for Iran’s Red Crescent.
Among the buildings reportedly wiped out by the tremor included the city’s 2,000-year-old fortress, a massive structure on a cliff near Bam that attracted thousands of tourists each year.
Earthquakes have wreaked havoc in Iran for hundreds of years. In June last year, an earthquake with the magnitude of 6.3 on the Richter scale hit northern Iran, killing at least 229 people and injuring more than 1,000. One of the deadliest quakes in recent memory occurred in northwest Iran in 1990, when a temblor measuring 7.7 on the Richter scale killed some 35,000 people.