Thousands fled their homes and remained outdoors after yesterday’s quakes, as at least 40 aftershocks hit the area.
Casualty figures could rise, Iranian officials said, as some of the injured were in a critical condition while other people were still trapped under the rubble and rescuers – hampered by the darkness – had yet to reach some affected villages.
Six villages had been destroyed and about 60 had sustained more than 50 percent damage, Iranian media said.
Photographs posted by Iranian news websites showed bodies lying on the floor in the corner of a white-tiled morgue in the town of Ahar, and medical staff, surrounded by anxious residents, treating the injured in the open air as dusk fell.
Other images showed collapsed buildings and cars flattened by rubble.
Iran is situated on major fault lines and has suffered several devastating earthquakes in recent years, including a 6.6 magnitude quake in 2003 which turned the southeastern historic city of Bam into dust and killed more than 25,000 people.
The US Geological Survey measured yesterday’s first quake at 6.4 magnitude and said it struck 60 km northeast of the city of Tabriz at a depth of 9.9 km. A second quake measuring 6.3 struck 49 km northeast of Tabriz 11 minutes later at a similar depth.
Officials said 180 people had been killed and about 1,500 injured, the semi-official Fars news agency reported.
The second quake struck near the town of Varzaghan. “The quake was so intense that people poured into the streets through fear,” Fars said.
Hundreds of people were rescued from under the rubble of collapsed buildings but night-time severely disrupted emergency efforts.
“Unfortunately there are still a number of people trapped in the rubble but finding them is very difficult because of the darkness,” national emergency head Gholam Reza Masoumi was quoted as saying by Fars.
The state news agency IRNA quoted Bahram Samadirad, a provincial official from the coroner’s office, as saying: “Since some people are in a critical condition … it is possible for the number of casualties to rise.”
The hospital in Varzaghan, manned by just two doctors and suffering from shortages of medical supplies and food, was struggling to cope with about 500 injured, the Mehr news agency reported.
“I was just on the phone talking to my mother when she said, ‘There’s just been an earthquake’, then the line was cut,” one woman from Tabriz, who lives outside Iran, wrote on Facebook after telephoning her mother in the city.
“God, what has happened? After that I couldn’t get through. God has also given me a slap, and it was very hard.”
Tabriz is a major city and trading hub far from Iran’s oil-producing areas and known nuclear facilities. Buildings in the city are substantially built, and the Iranian Students’ News Agency said nobody in the city had been killed or hurt.
Homes and business premises in Iranian villages, however, are often made of concrete blocks or mud brick that can crumble and collapse in a strong quake.
Red Crescent official Mahmoud Mozafar was quoted by Mehr news agency as saying about 16,000 people in the quake-hit area had been given emergency shelter.
Fars quoted Iranian lawmaker Abbas Falahi as saying he believed rescue workers had not yet been able to reach between 10 and 20 villages.
Falahi said people in the region were in need of bread, tents and drinking water.
A local provincial official urged people in the area to stay outdoors during the night for fear of aftershocks, according to IRNA.
The Turkish Red Crescent said it was sending a truck full of emergency supplies to the border. Turkey’s Foreign Ministry said it had informed Iran it was ready to help.