By Stuart Ramsay
This story first appeared on the website of NBC News’ partner Sky News.
TALAT N’YAKOUB, Morocco — The large rotary blades of a military helicopter fire up, lifting emergency supplies towards villages otherwise cut off from the world.
They’re also shuttling the injured and dead away from the epicenter.
An enormous cloud of dust engulfs dozens of survivors and emergency teams who have descended on the town of Talat Nyakoub, at the epicenter of the earthquake to dig for the living and recover the dead.
There is hope that loved ones didn’t die when the quake hit the Atlas Mountains here in Morocco, but the smell of dead bodies is at times overpowering and the grim faces of rescue workers speak volumes.
Dozens, sometimes hundreds, of people gather at a newly-formed road created when the street below disintegrated.
Beneath them, groups of rescue workers operating in teams of between six and 12 dig their way through the rubble.
There is little chatter, the sounds of drills and pickaxes fill the air. The occasional sound of somebody wailing punctuates the near silence. A sad indicator that another body has been found.
This is a desperate race to save lives but as each hour passes here, hope fades.
Rescue workers say finding survivors is difficult, not only because of the heat, but because of the amount of time that has passed since the earthquake struck — and the severity of that impact.
Whole streets have been destroyed in what survivors say was more like an enormous explosion rather than the shaking of an earthquake.
They described how the ground and buildings blew upwards from the earth before collapsing. Multistory buildings are now pancaked.
Air Said Mohamed says he rescued more than a dozen people before rescue workers got here.
“Sometimes you find someone alive, sometimes not, they have already died,” he said. “But there is hope, I rescued three people here and 10 in the other village above.”
In the blistering heat, rescuers dig through the rubble looking for survivors, but in all honesty, they’re expecting to find the dead.
While we filmed, we saw many dead — but we saw no survivors.
When a body is found, it is extracted from the rubble, wrapped in a blanket and placed on an orange stretcher.
Recovery teams then take the body to a dusty car park that has become the main gathering point for the relief effort.
They’re usually followed by the family, almost all in tears.
She was only visiting her family here — Heba was a student living in Marrakech.
Her family survived, she did not. Her mother and father cried and hugged, while their relatives tried to support them. They were inconsolable.
You see this scene time and again at the epicenter.
I met Fatima standing on the ridge watching relief efforts. She has lost 10 members of her family already and told me others are still missing.
“The rescue workers are doing a really good job but look at everything they have to dig through — concrete, sand rocks… it’s very difficult,” she said.
She has given up hope of anyone still being alive.
“Within seconds everything fell down, some people managed to run out of their houses, others didn’t make it,” she said.
Although most of the rescue work is done by hand, the teams occasionally use drills powered by generators to break through the exposed floors and ceilings of the buildings — it’s hard to differentiate between the two.
Youssef Id Mesouad was here when the body of his mother was removed from the family home.
He’s returned with his uncle and cousins to wait for the relief teams to find the body of his father.
He stands with them on top of the house, now a pile of rubble, gesturing and explaining the layout of the house.
Id Mesouad knows there is no hope left for his father. He told me his mother’s body was found near the ceiling of the house, not underneath it..
Throughout the day the bodies of the newly recovered were laid in a row in the car park. Their families sitting beside them, waiting to take them away.
Id Mesouad knows his father will be one of them, he’s just waiting for him to be found
This story first appeared on NBC News’ partner Sky News.
Sky News chief correspondent