CEBU, Philippines - A powerful earthquake killed at least 85 people in the Philippines Tuesday as it tore down modern buildings, destroyed historic churches and triggered terrified stampedes across popular tourist islands.
Fifteen of the confirmed fatalities were in Cebu, the country's second most important city and a gateway to some of its most beautiful beaches, the national disaster agency reported.
The 7.1-magnitude quake killed another 69 people in the neighbouring island of Bohol, famed for its rolling "Chocolate Hills", while one other person died on nearby Siquijor, which attracts tourists with its pristine white sands.
"I was thrown to the ground by the strength of the quake. Broken glass rained on me," Elmo Alinsunorin, who was on duty as a guard for a government tax office in Cebu, told AFP.
"I thought I was going to die."
Authorities said the death toll could still climb, with officials struggling to assess the extent of the damage in the worst-hit areas of Bohol where roads were impassable and power was cut.
Nevertheless, they expressed relief the earthquake occurred on a public holiday, meaning there were fewer people than normal in many of the major buildings that suffered damage.
The quake struck at 08:12 (0012 GMT) near Balilihan, a town of about 18,000 people on Bohol, at a depth of 20 kilometres (12 miles), the USGS reported. The town lies across a strait about 60 kilometres from Cebu.
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 the largest airport outside of the capital Manila. It also has a major ship building industry.
A university, a school and two shopping malls, public markets and many small buildings sustained damage in the quake.
Mass panic sparks stampede
Three of the people who died in Cebu were crushed to death in a stampede at a sports complex, where poor people had gathered to collect regular government cash handouts, according to the provincial disaster council chief, Neil Sanchez.
"There was panic when the quake happened and there was a rush toward the exit," Sanchez told AFP.
He said two other people were killed when part of a school collapsed on a car they had parked in, while four others died at a fish market that crumbled.
The Philippines' oldest church, Cebu's Basilica Minore del Santo Nino, was badly damaged, with its limsetone belfry in ruins.
It was first built in the 1500s by Spanish colonisers, although its current structure dates back to the 1700s.
A church on Bohol that was first built in the early 1600s also collapsed, 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.
Aside from its beaches, Bohol is famous for its more than 1,000 small limestone "Chocolate Hills" that turn brown during the dry season.
One of the main tourist venues there, the Chocolate Hills Complex, was severely damaged and may be beyond repair, according to Delapan Ingleterra, head of a local tourist police unit.
"There are huge cracks in the hotel and there was a collapse of the view deck on the second floor," Ingleterra told AFP, adding that no-one was injured at the complex.
There were no reports of foreign tourists being killed anywhere in the disaster zone.
Tuesday's quake was followed by at least four aftershocks measuring more than 5.0 in magnitude.
The epicentre was 629 kilometres from Manila.
The Philippines lies on the so-called Ring of Fire, a vast Pacific Ocean region where many of Earth's earthquakes and volcanic eruptions occur.
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.