People were evacuated from their hotels, schools and homes when the 6.0 magnitude quake struck after 9am.
Around nine aftershocks hit moments later, with the strongest one registering a magnitude of 4.6.
Local authorities reported a man was crushed when a church dome in the town of Arkalochori collapsed.
Sarah Williams-Long, a doctor at King’s Hospital in London who was staying at the Creta Maris beach resort with her partner and three-year-old son called the experience “terrifying”.
She said: “They’ve evacuated us from our hotel in case there’s a second earthquake – we’re waiting to be taken to a hotel away from the higher buildings.
“It was terrifying. Initially, there was just a very slight rumble, like waiting for a train underground, but it quickly increased causing the building to shake.
“Everyone instinctively got under the tables until we were asked to leave the building. Some people were visibly shaken – one of the chefs collapsed. It was very dramatic.”
The earthquake had a depth of 1.24 miles and occurred 23km southeast of island capital city Heraklion, the European Mediterranean Seismological Centre (EMSC) said.
The organisation initially recorded a magnitude of 6.5 while the United States Geological Survey put it at 6.0 on the Richter scale.
Express chief sub-editor Bob Watson was staying with his wife Karen at the five-star Royal Mare in Hersonissos, 20 miles from the quake’s epicentre, when it struck.
He described how guests were “white with fear” while others were constantly “on edge” yesterday.
Bob said: “It was just after 9am and I felt a violent shake of the bed and a loud rumbling noise. It was very scary. I knew instantly it was an earthquake.
“My wife Karen and I got out the second-floor room as quickly as possible. There was a Dutch woman outside in the grounds being comforted by her husband. Her face was white with fear.
“Hotel staff told us to eat breakfast as quickly as possible and get away from the taller buildings as they didn’t want lots of people in the same place at the same time.
“There was another rumble at 1:30pm though not quite as bad as the initial tremor. But a lot of the other guests are on edge and wary of any noises in the hotel.”