TEHRAN — Residents of the zone in northwestern Iran hit by powerful twin earthquakes described moments of terror and panic with birds crowing loudly in warning seconds before the ground shook. As the death toll rose Sunday to more than 250 with entire villages leveled, rescuers called off searches for survivors and turned their attention to caring for the 16,000 people left homeless.
At least 20 villages were totally destroyed in the quakes on Saturday that were followed by some 36 aftershocks, state television reported. Ahmad Reza Shajiei, a senior government official in charge of rescue operations, said more than 5,000 tents have been set up to shelter the thousands of displaced who spent the night outdoors.
‘‘The moment the earthquake hit, it was like a snake biting from underground. It was the worst experience of my life,’’ said resident Morteza Javid, 47, from Ahar.
‘‘The walls were shaking and moving from side to side. It took about a minute before I could run out of the house,’’ he said. ‘‘Seconds before the earthquake, crows were making a lot of noise, but I didn’t understand why. It was only after the quake that I learned the crows were warning us.’’
Javid said he drove more than a dozen injured people to hospitals during the night.
State television said at least 250 died. The semiofficial Mehr news agency quoted a local official who put the toll at 277. State TV said 44,000 food packages and thousands of blankets have been distributed in the stricken area.
In Washington, the White House sent a message of sympathy for the victims.
‘‘Our thoughts are with the families of those who were lost, and we wish the wounded a speedy recovery,’’ a statement said. “We stand ready to offer assistance in this difficult time.”
The US Geological Survey reported that Saturday’s first quake was magnitude 6.4 and struck 35 miles northeast of the city of Tabriz at a depth of 6.2 miles. State TV quoted local the crisis committee chief, Khalil Saei, as saying the epicenter was a region between the towns of Ahar and Haris, about 350 miles northwest of the capital Tehran.
The second quake was a magnitude 6.3 and struck 11 minutes later, the USGS reported. Its epicenter was 30 miles northeast of Tabriz at a depth of 6.1 miles.
The quakes hit Ahar, Haris, and Varzaqan in East Azerbaijan Province, state television reported.
In addition to 20 villages destroyed, more than 130 others sustained heavy damage, state TV said.
The aftershocks were felt in a wide region near the Caspian Sea, causing panic among the people.
Iran is located on seismic fault lines and is prone to earthquakes. It experiences at least one earthquake every day on average, although most are so small they go unnoticed.
In 2003, some 26,000 people were killed by a magnitude 6.6 quake that flattened the historic southeastern city of Bam.