Christina Morrow was ordering lunch just before noon Saturday in a restaurant on the top floor of a three-story building in an old section of Kathmandu, Nepal, when the earth beneath her moved.
That’s when a 7.8-magnitude quake struck.
“The first thing you noticed was the building swaying back and forth, really intensely,” the 18-year-old Lancaster High School graduate said. “You’re thinking that the ceiling’s going to fall.”
It didn’t, but the sound of a crashing glass cabinet above her and the warnings of some Nepalis in the restaurant made clear what was happening.
Morrow quickly ran down the stairs.
“The entire building was swaying side to side, so it’s almost throwing you back and forth into the walls when you’re on the stairs,” she recalled.
Morrow survived unscathed, and she managed to catch a previously scheduled flight out of Kathmandu on Sunday night. The 2014 Lancaster High School grad was able to return to her family’s South Carolina home early Wednesday morning, after a brief hospital visit.
In a Facebook posting and an almost hourlong phone interview Wednesday, Morrow described “the most intense gut-wrenching” moments of her life.
It’s a story that touches on the heart-breaking devastation she saw.
But it’s also a story of compassion and sharing.
Morrow talked about the gratitude on the faces of the Nepali people when she and two new friends passed out five kilos of carrots they had purchased after the earthquake.
And you can hear the love in her voice when she talks about the 26 children in the orphanage where she volunteered, now living under a tarp in a field with one week’s worth of food and water.
Following her graduation last June from Lancaster High School, Morrow went to community college in South Carolina for a semester before deciding to volunteer in child care overseas.
She wanted to go to India, but her parents, Glenn and Sandie Morrow, didn’t think it was safe enough, so she chose Nepal.
After leaving her volunteer job in early April to spend three weeks in India, Morrow returned to Nepal – just in time for the earthquake.
Once she escaped the swaying building, she ran through the streets of the city’s Thamel tourist area following a Nepali man, while wearing flip-flops and sporting a nasty leg infection from a previous incident.
On her Facebook page, Morrow described what she saw in the streets:
“There were downed telephone poles and brick walls lining the streets. Mangled wires hung down over the sidewalk and people were mobbing the middle of the road. Chaos was everywhere. When the first aftershock hit a young Indian woman clutched me to her and we rode out the tremors in the middle of the street.”
She’s not sure she saw any bodies, but she did spot limp and badly injured people being transported on bikes or other people’s backs.
Morrow slept in a field that night, camping out with 250 to 300 others, waking up to another intense tremor at about 4 a.m. Sunday and then packing her belongings.
She and two new friends, a British Columbia woman named Didi and a Nepali man, began looking for food. All restaurants were either closed or out of food, and she saw only two open shops in 36 hours. But the group found a vegetable vendor and bought a kilo of carrots for 40 cents.
They planned to eat the carrots but soon found a makeshift camp of hundreds of Nepalis, protected only by some tarps rigged over their rickshaws. So Morrow and her friends, after buying another four kilos of carrots, kept a small handful and handed out the rest.
“I’ve never seen so many people so appreciative of such a small gift,” she said. “Food is worth more than money, because you can’t find food.”
Morrow wanted desperately to return to the orphanage where she had volunteered for a little over two months. It’s an orphanage with 26 kids, ages 3 to 16.
The orphanage was still standing, but uninhabitable, with falling plaster and cracked walls. She later found the children in a field, camping out with their neighbors.
Despite all their challenges, including jaundice and a case of the sniffles, the children still seemed happy, especially the younger ones.
“They called me Sister Christina,” she recalled. “The little kids ran toward me and tackled me.”
She’s thrilled that none was injured, and with about a week’s worth of provisions, they’re more fortunate than most Nepalis. But she’s worried about the long term, especially because they’re not going to be getting enough food and water, and they’re sleeping under tarps.
Still, she’s buoyed by their spirits.
“I love them so much,” she said. “They have so little, and they appreciate it so much. They’re just such happy kids when they have so little. … I’m inspired by that, and I want to learn from that.”
Morrow didn’t want to leave Nepal after the tragedy. She mentioned the continuing ordeal of the Nepalis, including hundreds of small, inaccessible villages where residents either are trapped in the rubble or lack food, clean water and electricity.
The number of confirmed dead, already at about 5,000, is expected to rise.
“They’re thinking the death toll could climb to 10,000 or more,” she said. “It may take days and days to get to those people. By then it presumably would be too late.”
Since the Baltimore riots and Bruce Jenner may have moved Nepal off the front pages and out of the wall-to-wall weekend TV coverage, Morrow pleaded with friends, loved ones and others to donate to a reputable relief agency, such as the Red Cross, that can help provide food, clean water and shelter.
“These problems are going to be happening a week from now, a month from now, a year from now,” she said. “Nepal needs all the help it can get. Just because the news has stopped covering it doesn’t mean it’s not happening.”
She was struck by the sense of unity and compassion from the Nepalis, with so many people sharing what they had and caring for strangers.
But there was that nasty leg infection of hers – actually from a previous cow-licking incident – and she didn’t want to go to a hospital there, while others were waiting for treatment of head injuries, lost limbs and other traumatic injuries.
Besides, as Morrow said, “My parents needed to see my face.”
She returned home armed with lifelong lessons.
“I will never take life, food, shelter, or clean water for granted again,” she wrote. “Every day is a gift and in times like these we need to band together and help the people that need it most.”
And, in her mind, it doesn’t matter if those people are thousands of miles away.