CEBU, Philippines: At least 32 people were killed on Tuesday when a major 7.1 magnitude earthquake tore down buildings across three islands that are among the Philippines’ most popular tourist attractions, authorities said.
Fifteen of the fatalities were in Cebu, the second most important city in the Philippines and a gateway to some of the country’s most beautiful beaches, civil defence office spokesman Reynaldo Balido told reporters.
Five other fatalities were reported on neighbouring Bohol and Siquijor islands, famed for their idyllic white sands and turquoise waters that are typically visited by fast boat from Cebu.
“I was fast sleep when suddenly I woke up because my bed was shaking. I was so shocked, I could do nothing but hide under the bed,” Janet Maribao, 33, a receptionist in Cebu, told AFP.
“I was so scared, I could not even run out of the house. It was only 30 minutes later that we were able to leave the house.”
The quake struck at 08:12 local time (0012 GMT) near Balilihan, a town of about 18,000 people on Bohol, at a depth of 20 kilometres (12 miles), the United States Geological Survey reported.
The town lies across a strait about 60 kilometres from Cebu island.
Residents and tourists reported extensive damage to old churches and modern buildings, including a university, while major roads had also been torn apart.
Patients streamed out of one of Cebu’s major hospitals, which was damaged. Local media reported one floor of the building caught fire.
In the immediate aftermath of the quake, authorities were struggling to reach or contact damaged areas, with power lines as well as phone networks down, and a full picture of the disaster had yet to emerge.
“Communication lines are quite difficult here,” Neil Sanchez, head of the Cebu disaster management office, told ABC-ClimestoneBN television.
“Even the disaster risk reduction management office has been damaged. We had to move elsewhere.”
Cebu, with a population of 2.5 million people, is the political, economic, educational and cultural centre of the central Philippines.
It hosts the country’s busiest port and largest airport outside of the capital Manila. It also has a major ship building industry.
Bohol is famous for its “Chocolate Hills”, more than 1,000 small limestone hills that turn brown during the dry season.
A church on Bohol that was built in the early 1600s by Spanish colonisers collapsed in the quake, according to Robert Michael Poole, a British tourist who was visiting the area.
“It’s absolutely devastated… the entire front of the church has collapsed onto the street,” Poole told AFP by telephone.
However he said there was nobody in the church at the time of the quake.
Tuesday’s quake was followed by at least four aftershocks measuring more than 5.0 in magnitude.
USGS initially reported the quake as having a magnitude of 7.2, but shortly afterwards lowered it to 7.1.
The Pacific Tsunami Warning Center did not issue a Pacific-wide tsunami threat.
The epicentre was 629 kilometres from Manila.
The Philippines lies on the so-called Pacific Ring of Fire, a chain of islands that are prone to quakes and volcanic eruptions.
More than 100 people were left dead or missing in February last year after an earthquake struck on Negros island, about 100 kilometres from the epicentre of Tuesday’s quake.
The deadliest recorded natural disaster in the Philippines occurred in 1976, when a tsunami triggered by a magnitude 7.9 earthquake devastated the Moro Gulf on the southern island of Mindanao.
Between 5,000 and 8,000 people were killed, according to official estimates.