LOON, Philippines — The earthquake that struck the central Philippines and killed at least 144 people also dealt a serious blow to the region's historical and religious legacy by heavily damaging a dozen or more churches, some of them hundreds of years old.
As rescuers reached some of the hardest hit areas on Wednesday and the death toll from the quake a day earlier continued to rise, images of the wrecked religious buildings resonated across a nation where 80 percent of the population is Catholic.
The bell tower toppled from Cebu city's 16th-century Basilica of the Holy Child — a remnant of the Spanish colonial era and the country's oldest church building — becoming a pile of rubble in the courtyard by the front gate.
Other churches on the neighboring island of Bohol, epicenter of the quake and a popular tourist destination known for its beaches, were also damaged, some beyond repair.
"The heritage old churches are also very close to the hearts of the Boholanos," said Bohol Gov. Edgardo Chatto, using the term for residents of the island.
He said authorities would attempt to restore the historic churches, but some may never return to their former state.
"Every piece of the church should be left untouched so that restoration efforts can be easier," he said. "It may not be a total restoration, but closest to what it used to be before."
Emilia Dalagan was sweeping grass outside her home near the 300-year-old church called Our Lady of the Assumption Shrine in Dauis on the resort island of Panglao, near Bohol, when the ground shook.
"The funeral car was crushed by falling debris from the front of the church. The driver was able to get out," she said.
The back, front and the right wing of the church were destroyed. The structure is said to be made from corals cemented together with egg white.
Tuesday was a national holiday in the Philippines, incidentally celebrating the Muslim feast of Eid ul Adha, which meant some of the most damaged structures, like schools and office buildings, were empty when the quake struck, which saved many lives.
"That is our only consolation," said Bohol's provincial health officer Reymoses Cabagnot.
Gay Flores had just woken up in her two-story house in the town of Carmen when the 7.2-magnitude quake struck at 8:15 a.m., 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 the Bohol town of Carmen. "Belongings don't matter as long as we can save our lives."
A day after the quake, Gov. Chatto said that all towns in need had been reached, although landslides and damaged bridges were slowing down road travel. Only two of the island's 20 bridges were passable.
"The towns that needed help have been reached. The most heavily hit in terms of casualties was the town of Loon, and there are still ongoing processes there, of recovery," he said.
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.
Amazingly, the town of Carmen, the quake epicenter, did not record one single death. The hardest-hit areas were along Bohol's western coast.
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.
"We still have no electricity," he said. "As of this time, the people use firewood to cook."
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