A rescue and relief effort was last night being hampered by torrential rain over the mountainous area where the 6.4 magnitude quake affected tens of thousands of people in 40 villages near the town of Zarand in Kerman province.
Survivors clawed with their bare hands through the rubble of mud-brick homes to find loved ones, while weeping villagers carried away dead bodies in bloodied blankets and sheets.
"My whole family is dead," one man cried on state television. Survivors had already started burying the victims. "I saw four children, wrapped in blankets, being buried," a witness said.
Within hours, the authorities said that 231 bodies had been recovered.
Relief teams from the Iranian Red Crescent were distributing food, tents and blankets where possible, while many of the displaced were expected to be given refuge in nearby villages that were less affected. Mountain climbing experts were among the helicopter-backed military that supported the emergency effort.
Frequent earthquakes and the eight-year war with Iraq during the 1980s have given Iran valuable experience in coping with harrowing disasters. Rescue and relief teams are well-organised and equipped, and can mobilise swiftly.
Three villages were very badly hit with virtually every building affected. A third of the buildings were damaged or destroyed in another 30 villages.
"It’s almost completely devastated, there’s almost nothing left of the buildings," said Kari Egge, UNICEF’s representative in Iran, from the village of Douhan, about 12 miles from Zarand. "It’s cold and has been raining. There’s no shelter, nowhere for people to stay."
Many victims were feared buried under rubble in one village where a religious gathering had been under way when the quake, which lasted 11 seconds, struck.
Casualty figures rose steadily throughout the day. But the loss of life was expected to be far less than that caused by the 6.7 magnitude tremor which hit the historic Iranian city of Bam just over a year ago, killing 31,000.
Major towns and cities appeared to have escaped heavy damage while the quake’s depth was estimated at 26 miles, making its impact at the surface less devastating than the six-mile-deep Bam quake. There were no reports of casualties in the city of Kerman, but the earthquake had knocked out electricity there, the governor of the Zarand region said.
Many people were also awake when the ground beneath them began to shake at 5:55am local time, enabling them to flee outside. It also helped that emergency services were already on alert because of heavy snow and rain in the area.
Jack Straw, the Foreign Secretary, who has made several trips to Iran in recent years, said: "This is a terrible disaster and our thoughts and prayers are with the people in the area affected. Our sympathies go to the relatives of those who have tragically perished. We will do all we can to help the Iranian government."
Mostafa Mohaghegh, of the Geneva-based International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, said: "We were told there is no need for international rescue teams. Everything is under control, this size [earthquake] is manageable." Many of the buildings in the rural area were just one-storey, making the search and rescue operation less complicated, he added.
The United Nations said no country in the world is more afflicted by earthquakes than Iran, which is at the meeting point of three of the Earth’s plates that are squeezing the country.
Iran has at least one minor earthquake every day. On average, the country suffers a devastating quake once a decade. Before the December 2003 Bam quake, the last big one was in 1990 when at least 35,000 people were killed in north-west Iran by quakes measuring up to 7.7 on the Richter scale. Between those two huge tragedies, nearly 1,000 tremors in Iran claimed about 17,600 lives.
The devastation in the provinces has long left residents of the capital, Tehran, wondering fearfully what would happen if their sprawling city of 12 million people was next.