Recalling the 1990 ‘Killer Quake’

The Maharlika hi-way in Carranglan, Nueva Ecija after the july 16, 1990 quake struck (File photo by D. Ayroso/
The Maharlika hi-way in Carranglan, Nueva Ecija after the july 16, 1990 quake struck (File photo by D. Ayroso/

“To get a kilo of sugar or half a dozen of eggs, one has to wait or fight in line. Money has limited use. There was nothing to buy. You can feel panic around, as people fought to buy some food or batteries.”


Please also read #BulatlatAsks | Are you ready for the ‘Big One?’

Twenty-five years ago, on July 16, 1990, the 7.8 magnitude “Killer Quake” hit Luzon, when the northwest segment of the Philippine Fault moved, and sent tremors felt over an area of 500,000 square kilometers, from the corners of the Cordillera region in the north, up to Bicol in the south.

At least 1,200 people were killed, and P10 billion ($221 million) in properties were destroyed.

Many were killed, when poorly-built structures – such as the Hyatt hotel in Baguio City and the Liwag Colleges building in Cabanatuan City, Nueva Ecija – crumbled. interviewed some of the luckier survivors, who recalled their ordeal, and cluelessness.

No power, water or food

Dr. Gazelle Baysa-Pee, was then 18 and a medical student, vacationing with her relatives in Baguio City. When the quake struck, she recalled seeing people and grade school children crying in panic as they gathered on the grounds outside the Easter School in Guisad.

“Walking home to my aunt’s place, I passed by what – just a few hours ago — was a three-story building with a new basement, but it sank down to only two storeys,” she told

She said her aunt’s home “was in disarray, as if ransacked by a burglar.” Not a single picture frame remained on the wall, pots broken, even the refrigerator had moved from its spot.

“The electricity was cut off. As night came, I felt fear and tension in the house. We slept in the open garage with just the roof to protect us from the rain,” Baysa-pee recalled.

The next day, as shock and fear still blanketed the city, hunger and anxiety slowly crept in.

“My relatives and I walked to the city center, some three kilometres away. But things weren’t better there. The main road was cracked open. There were no vehicles. All stores were closed. A grocery opened a window just to sell some basic goods: sugar, rice, eggs,” Baysa-pee said, describing the scene as “chaotic.”

“To get a kilo of sugar or half a dozen of eggs, one has to wait or fight in line. Money has limited use. There was nothing to buy. You can feel panic around as people fought to buy some food or batteries,” she said.

Water supply was also cut off, and Baysa-pee recalled keeping hygiene was a challenge. She said they collected rainwater from the downspout, to use for bathing, and put out glasses to get rainwater for brushing teeth.

But a bigger problem was looming. “Knowing that Baguio was already isolated at that time, made us worry about how long our food would last,” she said.

After a few days, relief goods came in, and Baysa-pee recalled going around relief centers and eating corned beef every day.

Baguio in the aftermath of the 1990 quake
Baguio in the aftermath of the 1990 quake

‘Stench of death’

“By the second or third day, we could smell the stench, since there were only two funeral homes in the whole of Baguio City,” Baysa-pee said. She said there were too many corpses, and the city apparently ran out of chemicals to keep the bodies from decomposing.

Bulatlat’s managing editor, Benjie Oliveros, who was then with the NGO Management Advancement Systems Association Inc. or Masai), was facilitating a training for NGO workers in Baguio, described the scene as “surreal.”

“A lot of people were moving around dazed, worried, grieving, crying,” he wrote, in “Surviving an earthquake,” in the section On the Fringes.

“The stench of formalin and the sight of curtains covering the sidewalks and streets in front of funeral parlors were like scenes in a nightmare. There were just too many dead people for the funeral parlors to accommodate,” said Oliveros.

Phone home

Baysa-Pee recalled that PT and T, a telecommunication company along Session Road, offered free phone calls.

“It was the first cellular phone I saw, and it was attached to a battery as big as a car’s battery. I lined up for more than two hours to make a two-minute call to my family in Manila. Though it was free, nobody would mind paying for an extra minute, but the angry mob waiting for their turn would not allow even a 10-second extension. It was set up in the middle of the road and you had to talk in front of other people waiting for their turn. There was a timer that can be seen by all, who really made a countdown when you are near the end of your 120 seconds,” she said.

Getting home

To get back to Manila, Oliveros took Naguilian road, walked for dozens of kilometres, scaled landslides, then, upon reaching La Union province, rode a series of jeepneys and buses to get to Manila. Luckily, he travelled with other people determined to get back to their homes and families.

“We looked as if we were in a pilgrimage. All of us had our stories. There was a student who told me that he was going down to inform his relatives that his cousin, who was also a student in Baguio, died in the earthquake. Others also had their stories to tell, mostly about the death of relatives and friends. There were also people walking up the road to Baguio City. They looked terribly anxious and worried,” Oliveros recalled.

Baysa-Pee’s sister, a Manila-based journalist, eventually got her a slot on board a plane that delivered food and relief goods to Baguio. The C-130 plane was bringing people, and corpses, back to Manila.

“Inside the cargo plane, we were standing, as there were not enough seats. It was a 45-minute ride, but definitely not a joyful one. We were all quiet, knowing that somewhere in the same plane, were corpses whose families would be grieving when they arrive,” she recalled.


NGO workers Richard Magbitang and Marion Ramirez, now both staff of the Citizens Disaster Response Center (CDRC), were just elementary students in 1990. Magbitang was in Cabanatuan City, Nueva Ecija, while Ramirez was in Naga City, Camarines Sur, but both recalled hearing a loud noise, and having no idea what has happening.

“I was at our backyard, playing with fish in a small well we dug up on the ground. Then, the water began to shake. We had no idea that it was an earthquake. It was loud,” Magbitang described it like the wind howling.

“We felt the ground moving, from side to side, and up and down. But we had no idea what it was. We thought it was just a passing helicopter, flying low,” he said.

Ramirez said she and her schoolmates heard a loud, whirring sound.

“We were playing in the schoolyard, then we heard a loud noise…the glass windows of the school building were vibrating, but I didn’t feel the shaking, I just heard the noise,” she said.

“After that, it was like nothing happened. Our teachers didn’t bother to explain that we just experienced an earthquake, it was like nothing happened,” Ramirez recalled.

Magbitang said he and his siblings only found out that it was an earthquake when they went out to the neighbourhood streets. The next day, they learned about the destruction caused by the quake. He said, out of curiousity, they even went to watch rescuers at the Liwag colleges building, where many students died under the collapsed structure.

Would the scenes of tragedy, panic and ignorance be repeated when the ‘Big One’ hits? The possibility is not remote, Baysa-pee said.

“Looking back, what I remember most, was the sight of a hotel with a crack, running from top to bottom of the building. It was condemned back in 1990. Now, it’s still in full operation, but repainted,” Baysa-Pee said. (

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