1990 Quake: The 'Big One' that shook Luzon

Text and photos by Fernando G. Sepe, Jr.

Posted at Jul 15 2015 10:04 PM | Updated as of Aug 31 2020 11:41 PM

July 16, 1990 -- We all thought it was going to be a slow day for news. My photographer colleagues and I were headed back to base in the early afternoon, passing by Ortigas Center, when we felt a sudden jolt inside the jeep we were riding.

We thought someone was doing a prank, but we were moving on the road.

The jolt became a strong shake and as we rushed to get out of the jeep, we saw the road heaving like a wave and the tall electric posts swaying like coconut trees.

People were rushing out of the buildings and we started taking pictures of the magnitude 7.8 earthquake that just hit Luzon island.

In the weeks that followed, I found myself hopping from one disaster area to another, sometimes with a group of photographers and sometimes by myself, as I followed the earthquake's path of destruction from Manila to Central Luzon and all the way up to the Cordillera Region where it left the most damage.

The first reports that came in pointed at Cabanatuan City as the hardest-hit area, and it was a rush for journalists to get to the scene.

A college school building was reported flattened to the ground in the middle of a school day.

Several people were reported injured and others were trapped underneath the rubble of the six-storey Christian College of the Philippines in Cabanatuan City.

As the following day dawned, rescue crews and government officials arrived at the scene, among them Mayor Dick Gordon of Olongapo City.

U.S. Marines stationed in Subic Naval Base, which was still then an American military facility, also rushed to Cabanatuan City.

The epicenter of the quake was later determined to be in Nueva Ecija, a few kilometers outside Cabanatuan City.

The quake's damage stretched from the mountains of Cordillera all the way to Manila. After two days, reports started coming in that Baguio City, the Cordillera region's nerve center, was also badly hit.

Getting to Baguio City meant travelling by foot through landslides via the Naguillan Road, as all three access roads were blocked by landslides, including the most well-known, Kennon Road.

The smell of death in Baguio City was apparent in the air, even just two days after the quake.

More than two dozen buildings in Baguio City collapsed and majority of the earthquake's 1,600 casualties were from the area.

For several days, Baguio City was hit by several aftershocks, forcing people to leave their homes. People in the city were constantly moving.

One of Baguio City's well-known hotels, the Nevada, was in ruins after the temblor.

The most famous of Baguio City's hotels then, the Hyatt Terraces, fell like a set of dominoes.

The first responders were miners from Benguet. Owing to their skills in cave exploration, the miners were able to save many lives in the process.

Foreign rescue workers, among them from Japan, started arriving three days after the quake.

The city's funeral houses were overflowing and the casualties were brought to makeshift morgues.

A cadet from the Philippine Military Academy paused for a breather from rescue work.

Hundreds flocked to the Loakan Airport hoping to be evacuated by air.

Aircraft from the Philippine Air Force ferried mostly rescue teams and relief goods but accommodated passengers in mercy flights out of the city.

Chinook helicopters from the US Air Force brought in rescue teams and equipment at the Loakan airport.

Rescue teams assessed the damage to the Hyatt Terraces Hotel before attempting any rescue. Remarkably, 14 days after the quake, the hotel's cook, Pedrito Dy, was recovered alive from the rubble.

A rescuer attempted to scale the toppled Royal Inn on Session Road, Baguio's main avenue.

Children watched from the sidelines.

The city's most famous landmark that welcomes tourists passing through Kennon Road was not spared by the earthquake.

Seven days after the quake, other affected areas had yet to be reached by rescuers and aid groups. Some residents traveled the damaged Philippine-Japan Friendship Highway linking Nueva Ecija to Nueva Vizcaya by foot.

Along the way, our group encountered members of the indigenous Kalanguya tribe performing a "canao", an offering to the gods in the face of a disaster.

An elder of the tribe led the offering in the ritual wherein an animal is sacrificed.

Our group spent two days of traveling on foot, first via the broken highway and then through mountain passes showing cracks produced by the quake, to reach Kayapa, Nueva Vizcaya, a village in the mountain isolated by the earthquake.

In Kayapa, Nueva Vizcaya, the villagers adjusted to the threats of aftershocks and the absence of commerce a week after the devastating quake.

People live in makeshift tents fashioned from different materials in the village's public school grounds.

The village's health center was totally destroyed.

Relief goods arrived and were stored and distributed at the church.

Inside one of the makeshift tents, a family of five kept warm by huddling close together.

Outside, a bonfire kept the chilly mountain air at bay.

The village got a visit from a helicopter of the Presidential Airlift Wing. It was an advanced team for President Cory Aquino, and our group's ticket out of the village without having to travel back by foot.

In Dagupan City, almost two weeks after the quake, things crawled back at a snail's pace in the absence of attention from disaster response agencies.

Dagupan City was flooded after the earthquake because of liquefaction, wherein ground water rose, rendering the top soil loose.

The sign tells of the faith that kept the people of Dagupan City holding on to hope despite the calamity.

A family uses a damaged public market in Aringay, La Union for temporary shelter. Aringay was one of two villages that sank because of liquefaction.

In Aringay, La Union, the town's church was flattened, leaving only a tablet with part of God's Ten Commandments standing.