USA Today recently named the 25 people whose lives most moved Americans over the last quarter century. One of them was Jessica McClure, the little girl who fell down the well.
She’s 21 years old now, married since January 2006 to Daniel Morales and a college student. But she is still and always will be “Baby Jessica,” the centerpiece of a 58-hour rescue drama that commanded the attention – and the emotions – of a town, a nation and the world.
On Oct. 14, 1987, Jessica was an 18-month-old toddler playing with a group of children at the home of her aunt, who made money by babysitting children in Midland a town caught in recession in southwest Texas. Jessica’s mother, Reba “Cissy” McClure, had gotten married at 16 to Chip McClure and was just 17 years old at the time.
Cissy McClure, who helped her sister with the babysitting business, left the group of playing children briefly to go in the house and answer the phone. When she came back, the children were looking down an abandoned and dry well that had been dug years earlier and covered with a flower pot.
Before long, the story spread around the world.
Jessica has not given many interviews over the nearly 20 years since that day. When she has, she’s said that she has no memory of her ordeal. But, with a made-for-television movie, Everybody’s Baby, that debuted on ABC in 1989, mountains of newspaper clippings and a bronze memorial in Midland, she doesn’t need to.
At first, it seemed as if she would be rescued within a day. The hole she fell into was lined by a well casing just eight inches in diameter. She became wedged 22 feet down where the shaft veered off slightly to the side and opened up into an opening about 14 inches wide.
Rescuers set out to drill another shaft parallel to the well. The plan was to then dig a cross shaft slightly below where she was trapped and rescue her from beneath.
But the drillers met a layer of unusually dense and hard rock that ate up drill bits at a frightening rate. Television crews moved in to document the rescue and CNN broadcast the images around the world.
The little girl immediately became “Baby Jessica.” The world learned that she cried at times, but also sang songs and recited nursery rhymes through the long hours. The prayers of millions accompanied the race to rescue her.
Medical personnel decided not to provide her with food and water, fearing that if she had internal injuries they could do more damage than good. She could, they said, survive three or four days without water. A hose was lowered to provide fresh air and another duct delivered warm air so that she wouldn’t suffer from hypothermia.
When it became obvious that the rescue would take longer than initially thought, the federal government flew in a mining expert to lead the scores of people working around-the-clock to save her. Ultimately, a relatively new cutting tool that used a jet of water under extremely high pressure to cut through the rock was brought in.
She had fallen into the well on a Wednesday morning. She was finally freed on Friday night, and the pictures in the newspapers the next day showed a very dirty but alert child swathed in gauze bandages being carried to a waiting ambulance.
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Scott Shaw, a young photographer with The Odessa American newspaper, won a Pulitzer Prize for his shot of the moment of rescue.
Life went on
For two and a half days, Jessica’s right leg had been forced up toward her chest and pinned against the wall of the well, cutting off circulation. She eventually lost her small toe and other tissue to gangrene. Her forehead had also been rubbed raw.
But other than dehydration, she was in remarkably good condition when she was rushed to the hospital.
Midland held a parade for the rescuers, and the lead crew found themselves on Oprah Winfrey’s show. Donations to the teenaged parents from around the world allowed the McClures to buy a modest house, start a business – it later failed – and establish a trust fund that Jessica will receive when she’s 25. The family has never said how much money is in the fund, but published reports have put it in the million-dollar range.
The few interviews over the years with Jessica, all of which are collected online at the Baby Jessica Rescue Page, show first a girl and then a young woman who has coped well with her celebrity and a family that has worked hard to help her grow up as normally as possible. Her marriage last year was a private affair. A sign on the door of the Church of Christ where the marriage took place asked that no cameras be brought inside.
Her parents divorced several years later. Cissy McClure remarried and is now Cissy Porter.
There have been some casualties related to the rescue. Robert O’Donnell, one of the paramedics who played a critical role in extracting Jessica from the well, committed suicide in 1995. Psychologists have suggested that he suffered from post traumatic stress disorder brought on by the rescue.
In 2004, Andy Glasscock, who had been a Midland Police sergeant was near the center of the rescue, was charged and later convicted of sexually exploiting a minor. He is serving 20 years in prison.
But Jessica, by all accounts, has turned out just fine, and the memory of her dramatic rescue endures. In the USA Today article, she is listed among such others as Lance Armstrong, Christopher Reeve, the passengers of United Flight 93 and Princess Diana in her impact on the past quarter century.
As her husband told People magazine near the time of their marriage, “She's 'Baby Jessica,' everybody’s baby.”
On Monday, June 11, Jessica McClure will talk, in her first-ever live one-on-one interview on broadcast TV, with NBC News' Matt Lauer. The interview will air on TODAY, which airs from 7 a.m. to 10 a.m. EST.
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