MANILA - A 7.2 magnitude earthquake hit the Central Philippines Tuesday morning, killing at least 107 people and wounding hundreds more in a popular tourist region. Centuries-old structures were damaged.
The central part of the country, called the Visayas, is made up of more than a dozen islands and Civil Defense officials say most of the initially reported deaths were in Cebu City. The city is a short boat ride from Bohol Island, a popular tourist destination, where the quake struck. They say they expect the number of casualties to increase as more local governments report damage. Most of the casualties are expected to come from urban areas.
In Manila, the chairman of the National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Council, Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin, told reporters it was likely there were no immediate reports of mass casualties because Tuesday was a national holiday.
“There is no convergence of crowds, particularly in the churches that collapsed. Had this happened on a Sunday, especially the time was 8:00, then this [would be] another story,” said Gazmin.
An official with the Department of Health told the council there were additional deaths and injuries that the council said it would confirm.
Director Carmencita Banatin said all government hospitals in the worst hit region were on high alert and that there were “still a lot [of injured people] coming in” to hospitals in Bohol. Hundreds of powerful aftershocks forced many to sleep outdoors on Tuesday night, including patients at some hospitals.
The earthquake broke off the bell tower of one of the country’s oldest churches, the Basilica Minore del Santo Niño de Cebu, the current structure of which was built in 1735. Social media photos posted by nearby residents showed several other centuries-old churches in Bohol and Cebu had walls and sections reduced to rubble.
Other buildings in the area partially collapsed, including Cebu City Hall, while major bridges and some roads were broken. The Mactan-Cebu airport suffered cracks in the ceiling and was temporarily closed with some flights canceled.
Military officials told the council they had pooled personnel whose expertise was in structural damage to help with search and rescue operations.
The department of social welfare reported two incidences of people panicking when the ground shook while they waited in line to receive their regular government stipends. Social Welfare Secretary Corazon Soliman said in one town, the panic caused a stampede that left a four year old dead when she was separated from her mother.
Institute of Volcanology and Seismology Director Renato Solidum did not issue a tsunami warning because he said the quake’s epicenter was on land. In a mixture of Filipino and English he told reporters the quake happened on a shorter fault line and that it was not near any other fault lines.
“Just remember that faults in the Philippines move on their own. So it might happen that there could be one that moves. So we just need to be prepared always,” said Solidum.
Solidum also said the worst of the aftershocks, which he did not expect to be stronger than magnitude 4.5, would occur over the next two days.
The Philippine islands are mostly comprised of two major volcanoes, making the country prone to earthquakes. It lies on what is known as the Pacific “Rim of Fire.”