‘Baby Jessica’ 20 years later

/ Source: TODAY contributor

A grown woman of 21 with a son of her own, the woman who will always be “Baby Jessica” looked for the first time at the pipe that for nearly 59 hours had been her tomb almost 20 years ago. She kicked at the steel cap that has been welded to the top, like a prospective buyer kicking the tires of a car.

“It was kind of weird,” she told TODAY host Matt Lauer about that moment in an exclusive interview. Since she was pulled from the 8-inch pipe in October of 1987 when she was a 18-month old toddler, Jessica McClure Morales hadn’t returned to that well until she went there with a TODAY crew. Indeed, she had never appeared live on television or given a free interview with the media.

“Everybody who had ever been there had seen that and known what was going on,” she said of the abandoned well that pokes unobtrusively from the ground near a fence in what had been the backyard of her aunt’s house in Midland, Texas. “For me to come back 20 years later, it was a little difficult because I had no earthly idea or anything of what had ever really honestly happened there.”

Not until she was five years old — more than three years after the rescue effort that captivated the nation and the world — did she learn her own story. She was watching an episode of “Rescue 911” about a little girl trapped in a well and was moved to tears by it. She asked her stepmother — her parents, Cissy and Chip McClure, had divorced by then — about the girl and was told it was her.

Jessica pulled back her bangs to show Lauer a diagonal scar on her forehead, the most visible of the several she carries as a result of her ordeal. It marks where her forehead had been rubbed raw against the well casing during the 2 ½ days she was trapped, while scores of rescuers drilled a parallel tunnel and connecting shaft through solid rock to rescue her.

The scar might be erased by plastic surgeons, but Jessica has decided to keep it. “It shows who I am, and the fact that I am here and that I could have not been here,” she told Lauer.

In high school, she was diagnosed with juvenile rheumatoid arthritis that is being controlled by her physicians.

“[It] makes me feel lucky that I survived it and happy that I did,” she told TODAY in an earlier interview.

For the live TODAY interview, she wore her shoulder-length dark hair in a Prince Valiant cut and spoke with a Texas twang, for all appearances just a regular mom from a regular town living a regular life.

But she’s still called “Baby Jessica.” That doesn’t bother her, she told Lauer, and referred to a character in a children’s book to explain why.

“Like they told Lil’ Bow Wow, you’ll never get rid of the ‘little’ part,” she said. “Cause you’ll always be what you are remembered as.”

Sometimes, that can be amusing. She told about going to a Cheddar’s restaurant and stumbling as she stepped off the curb outside.

“A little old man said that to me, he said, ‘You are the baby that fell in the well, right?’” she told Lauer, breaking into a big smile at the memory.

“I said, ‘Yes, sir,’” she continued. “He said, ‘Well, I thought you’d learned how to watch your step when you were two years old.’”

In school, another child wasn’t so good-natured, calling her “Well Dweller” for several years before one of Jessica’s friends straightened him out. “[He] punched him,” she said.

Jessica’s parents were just kids when she was born; her mother was 17 and her dad 18 when she fell into the well. Her aunt ran a baby-sitting service in Midland, and Jessica had been playing with other kids in the yard while Cissy McClure watched them. Cissy went into the house to answer the phone. When she came back moments later, the children were looking down the casing of an abandoned well, and Cissy heard her daughter calling out to her.

Everybody’s baby’

Jessica was wedged in the pipe 22 feet down. Rescuers piped fresh air and heat down to her while they labored nonstop on the rescue shafts. When she was finally pulled out, a filthy but alert 18-month-old girl wrapped in gauze and strapped to a backboard, rescuers cheered and church bells rang out. There was even a White House reception with President George H. W. Bush and First Lady Barbara Bush.

She had become “Everybody’s Baby,” the title of an ABC TV movie about her rescue. Ten years later, a Pew Research Center project showed that only the death of Princess Diana drew more worldwide media coverage than Jessica’s rescue. Today, Pew ranks her story eighth in media interest over the past 20 years, behind Rodney King and the crash of TWA Flight 800 and ahead of the Columbine High School shootings and the end of the first Gulf War. Last month, the staff of USA Today placed her 22nd on a list of the 25 people who have had the most impact on our lives during the past quarter century.

Donations for her poured in after her rescue. The money — estimated at the time to be between $700,000 and one million dollars — was put into a trust fund that she will be able to access when she is 25. She has said she intends to sign the fund over to her 11-month-old son, Simon.

She married Daniel Morales, 13 years her senior, in January 2006 in a private ceremony. She met Morales through his sister, with whom she worked at a day-care center. He said he had no idea who she was when they met. Morales was convicted in 2002 of impersonating a federal marshal to steal money and drugs from drug dealers. Because he is still on probation, he and Jessica could not travel to New York for the interview, which was conducted via satellite.

Until today, news of Jessica’s life came from just one source — the Ladies Home Journal. On the 10th and 15th anniversaries of her ordeal, her parents sold the rights to her story to the magazine, keeping all other media away.

Although Cissy and Chip McClure separated and divorced in the years after the rescue, they remained united in their determination to make Jessica’s childhood as normal as possible.

People cared so much’

Today, Jessica, who was shown playing with her son and her husband in the yard of their suburban home, wants the same for Simon.

“I am a little [overprotective],” she admitted. “I kind of get a little excited every time he gets a bump or a bruise. I have learned that he’s going to get many, and there’s nothing I can really do about it. He’s going to fall down, and he’s going to bust his face open, and he’s going to do it several different times.

“I’ve got to let him grow up. He’s a good boy.”

Lauer asked her if she’s ever been able to understand why so many people became so emotionally involved in her rescue and her life.

“I explain to myself that I believe that people cared so much because they would hope that somebody would care that much about them,” she said. “In a way, helping me out and caring about me helped them out.”