Residents recount terror of Philippine quake as blocked roads hinder rescue efforts

Gay Flores had just woken up in her two-story house in the town of Carmen Tuesday morning, a national holiday in the Philippines, when the 7.2-magnitude quake struck, sending shock waves across the picturesque island — and knocking her off her feet.

"I crawled down to our kitchen because my mother and nephews were there," she said. "Then we crawled out of the house."

The roof of their house had caved in and the cement walls had collapsed, but she was alive, and so were her parents.

"We left everything behind," Flores said by phone from Carmen. "Belongings don't matter as long as we can save our lives."

Having the day off may have saved her life — and those of many others. Even as the death toll rose to 110, Philippine officials say that because of the holiday, many schools and offices that collapsed on Bohol Island were empty when the quake struck at 8:15 a.m.

A day after the quake, rescuers with heavy equipment were still blocked from getting to devastated, isolated towns that were cut off by landslides or because bridges were seriously damaged. Only two of the island's 20 bridges were passable.

The island, with 1.2 million people, is a popular tourist destination because of its beach resorts and famed Chocolate Hills.

But from the air Wednesday, the town of Loon, 42 kilometers (26 miles) to the west of Carmen, was a jumble of toppled houses, churches and other buildings. Residents picked their way around rubble and gaping cracks in the road.

The quake took a heavy toll on historic churches in the area, many of them dating back a couple hundred years or more to the Spanish colonial period. About 10-12 suffered major damage, many beyond repair.

In Cebu, the 16th century Basilica of the Holy Child — the country's oldest church building — lost its bell tower, which became a pile of rubble in the courtyard by the front gate.

Officials said that most damaged structures like schools and office buildings were empty for a Muslim holiday when the quake struck, which saved many lives.

"That is our only consolation," said Bohol's provincial health officer Reymoses Cabagnot.

President Benigno Aquino III and senior Cabinet members came to offer their support Wednesday and distribute relief aid and inspect the damage firsthand. Interior Secretary Mar Roxas said that the bridges would be repaired within weeks.

Senior Inspector Jacinto Mandal, the police chief in Loon, was sitting in his office drawing up a plan for the upcoming village election when the quake hit.

"It was really strong. It was as if something was really moving underground," Mandal said. "We fell to the ground from the force of the shaking. If you attempt to stand, you would topple."

Running outside, he saw cracks open in the street and people were screaming and crying. He told them to gather outside the municipal hall.

He found the mayor, who was shaken but alive, and they proceeded to the church, only to find it reduced to rubble. Two bodies were pulled out Wednesday.

After reaching the collapsed church, he and the priest escorted the people away to a more open area.

The destruction was visible in every direction. Every 10 meters there were cracks in the streets. Almost all the houses were damaged and residents pitched makeshift tents outside their homes.

"We still have no electricity," he said. "As of this time, the people use firewood to cook."