The morning of October 14, 1987, felt like any other. That is, until an 18-month-old girl named Jessica McClure fell down a well in Midland, Texas. For the next 58 hours, the nation was on the edge of its seat, watching the events unfold and praying for the girl to be okay.
Jessica had been playing in the backyard of her aunt’s home, which was turned into a daycare center. Jessica’s mother, Cissy, had been watching her, but she went inside for a moment to take a phone call. By the time Cissy came out of the house again, her daughter was gone.
If Only That Phone Hadn’t Rung
It was only natural for Jessica to run around her aunt’s backyard careless and free, as any toddler should be. She was a happy kid and played with the others who were in her aunt’s in-home daycare center. All it took was a split second, though, for her entire world to change.
Suddenly, she found herself plunging into total darkness, 22-feet below the ground. And that’s where she stayed for the next two and a half days. Jessica and four other young children were in the care of Cissy that morning. If only that phone hadn’t rung…
Why Is There a Well in the Yard?
As Jessica was running in the backyard, she stumbled and fell into an eight-inch opening in the ground. Of course, you’re wondering why does a home daycare center have a damn well in its backyard? Well, the strange thing is that the hole had been covered with a large rock.
This is what makes the incident even more peculiar; no one knows exactly how Jessica was able to fall into it. Nonetheless, she fell victim and the other children playing outside started screaming. As soon as Cissy heard them, she rushed outside. Cissy frantically searched for her daughter.
“I Didn’t Know What to Do”
The children told Cissy that Jessica was gone, and soon enough, her mother realized that Jessica had fallen into the well shaft. She immediately called the police. “I didn’t know what to do,” Cissy later admitted. “I just ran in and called the police. They were there within three minutes, but it felt like a lifetime.”
Finally, first responders arrived on the scene, and it didn’t take long for the story to reach the news media. As reporters were making their way to the well, rescue crews were frantically trying to get little Jessica out of the well.
Let the Drilling Begin
It goes without saying that the fall was extremely dangerous – just as the endeavor to rescue her was. Since she had fallen beneath layers of rock that were harder than granite in such a narrow opening, getting her out with harming her was the goal.
What the rescuers ended up doing was drilling a hole parallel to the one she was in; one that was 76.2 centimeters wide and 8.8 meters deep. Using a large rat-hole rig (which is usually used for planting telephone poles into the ground), they then drilled a horizontal tunnel between the two wells, about a meter below where Jessica was trapped.
Becoming Baby Jessica
Soon enough, the story was being covered live on CNN, the only 24-hour news network at the time. The whole world was watching the girl’s story unfold. She became known as “Baby Jessica” to both rescuers and viewers at home.
For the next 58 hours, rescuers worked non-stop to get Jessica out of there. All the while, oxygen was being pumped into the well so that she could breathe. They also lowered a microphone so they could communicate with the little girl who must have been scared beyond belief.
She Sang Winnie the Pooh to Herself
There were times when she was moaning, crying, and wailing. And there were other times when she would sing nursery rhymes to herself with the help of the rescuers who sang with her. The point was to maintain constant communication.
They could tell from her moaning that she was injured but hearing her sing “Winnie the Pooh” encouraged them. “After listening to her for so long, I could tell her moods,” a detective on the scene said. “At one point she was singing. At another point, when a jackhammer started up, she didn’t say any words but used kind of a huffy little voice.”
People Were Glued to Their Screens
“You could tell it was an angry voice,” he described. “I would say 80 per cent of the time she was either crying or making some kind of noise we could hear.” The detective mentioned that when they weren’t calling out words of encouragement, they told her to sing for them. “I’ll never forget her singing Winnie the Pooh.”
As America watched the events unfold live, people at home were stuck to their couches, unable to take their eyes off their screens. Many sent family toys, flowers, money and cards.
The Man Who Volunteered to Get Her Out
Hundreds of thousands of dollars were being donated to Baby Jessica, which was put into a trust fund that she would inherit at the age of 25. People couldn’t help but feel connected to the story as it was both close to home yet unlike anything they’d seen before.
On the scene was a roofing contractor named Ron Short, and he was the one who ultimately volunteered to go down the shaft and pull Jessica out. Since he was born without collarbones, he had the ability to collapse his shoulders and be in confined spaces.
Free at Last
At the end of the day, he was perfect for the job. Short’s offer was seriously considered, but he didn’t end up being the one to physically lift Jessica out of the well. That job was ultimately carried out by paramedic Robert O’Donnell.
O’Donnell was able to make his way through the small tunnel, pull Jessica out, and lift her up to a medic next to them. After 58 painstaking hours, on October 16, Jessica was finally free and taken to the awaiting ambulance.
What Happened to Jessica?
Thankfully, Jessica fully recovered from the incident, although she does have a permanent scar on her forehead from where her head was rubbing against the side of the rocks in the well. She also had to get a one of her toes amputated due to gangrene, which was caused by loss of circulation while in the well.
When she fell down, she was lodged with one leg extended above her forehead. The poor thing had to undergo 15 surgeries to reconstruct her foot, not to mention getting treated for the complications caused by three days without food or water.
She Doesn’t Remember a Thing
Aside from the scar and the missing toe on her right foot, she suffers from chronic rheumatoid arthritis. While everyone in the country knew Jessica and what happened to her, Jessica herself has no memories of being trapped inside that well. She was simply too young, despite the trauma.
After the life-changing incident, Jessica’s parents, Cissy and Chip McClure, got divorced. By the time she was five and saw the story on the TV, she was with her stepmother, her dad’s new wife.
That Girl on the TV Is Me?
One day, when Jessica was five years old, she was watching an episode of her rescue on Rescue 911 with her dad and stepmom. That’s when she learned about what had happened to her. Jessica asked her stepmother who the baby on the TV was, and learned it was her.
Reportedly, she got very emotional when she learned that she was the girl they were talking about on the TV. From then on, Jessica knew she was famous for being saved, but she went on to live a regular life.
“I Had God on My Side That Day”
“Seeing the well for the first time [as an adult] it was hard, but it wasn’t upsetting,” Jessica said in an interview with People on the 30th anniversary of the ordeal. “To me it’s a symbol that it could have taken my life, but it didn’t. I had God on my side that day.”
Jessica graduated from Texas’ Greenwood High School in 2004 and married a man named Daniel Morales two years later. She now has two kids, Simon and Sheyenne, and is a stay-at-home mom.
It May Have Spawned the 24-Hour Media Surge
Thanks to the funds raised by well-wishers at home, Jessica’s medical bills were paid for. In 2011, on her 25th birthday, she announced that the $800,000 in her trust fund will be saved for her children’s future education. To put it in perspective, the only other event at the time that was covered by 24/7 news was the explosion of the space shuttle Challenger.
Many believe that Jessica’s rescue was the event that kicked off the 24-hour news media surge. It also could be the reason Jessica’s parents divorced, having been suddenly thrown into the spotlight.
The Aftermath Isn’t Always Pretty
Succumbing to the pressure, Cissy and Chip couldn’t handle the publicity and divorced only two and a half years after the incident. Believe it or not, the couple was only 18 years old when it happened. It’s understandable that they couldn’t handle the stress.
Unfortunately, that wasn’t the only side effect of the incident. Eight years after he rescued her, in 1995, paramedic Robert O’Donnell committed suicide. Apparently, the pressure got to him, too. The instant fame meant he was unable to return to a normal life after all the excitement died down.
The Rescuer Needed Some Help of His Own
A mere four days before his death, he was watching rescuers help the victims of the Oklahoma City bombing on TV. He told his mother in that moment, “When those rescuers are through, they’re going to need lots of help. I don’t mean for a couple of days or weeks, but for years.”
It was later determined that O’Donnell suffered from PTSD, which was assumed to have been brought on by Jessica’s rescue. O’Donnell was only 37 years old when he was found on his parents’ ranch, about 20 miles from Midland.
After the Rescue, His Life Fell Apart
O’Donnell had written a suicide note and drove to a pasture to carry out the deed. He evidently shot himself to death. “Ever since that Jessica deal, his life fell apart,” his brother Ricky O’Donnell said. He said that people often asked his brother about the event.
It turns out he was chosen for the role of the rescuer on October 16, 1987, because of his slight frame. Interestingly, O’Donnell portrayed a reporter in a made-for-TV movie about Baby Jessica’s rescue. According to his brother, O’Donnell divorced and quit the Midland Fire Department in 1992.
Love at First Sight
Jessica and her family live just a few miles away from the well that nearly took her life. When Daniel Morales met Jessica, he didn’t know she was the famous “Baby Jessica.” According to Jessica, “It was love at first sight.”
Only a month into their relationship they were already engaged. While her goal was to use her trust fund money for her children’s future education, the 2008 financial crisis ended up taking a chunk of that money. They were able to use it to buy a family home.
“My Life Is a Miracle”
“I think it’s amazing that people would come together like that to donate money to a child that was not theirs,” Jessica shared. “I appreciate everything they did… My life is a miracle.” Jessica now works as a special-education teacher’s aide.
As for Daniel, he’s a foreman in a pipe supply company. Family is everything to them, especially for Jessica, who said, “Had I not survived, none of this would have been.” Jessica’s dad Chip told the Associated Press, “That’s all Jessica has ever wanted was to be a mom and have a family.”
Was That a Jab at His Ex-Wife?
He added, “She’s a good mom and keeps her eyes on her kids. She’s certainly a dotting mother.” The “keeps her eyes on her kids” sounds like a jab at his ex-wife (but maybe that’s just me). It’s natural to assume that Jessica’s father was angry with his wife for not watching their child in that fateful moment.
What happened to his daughter was actually the second tragedy in Chip McClure’s life in 1987. In May of that year, his older brother Rod died of AIDS.
They Were So Young
Chip and Cissy (her given name was Reba) married as teens and both dropped out of high school. They have since both earned a high school equivalency degree. Chip started working as a house painter. ″They are real sweet kids,″ neighbor Margie Lunsford said at the time. ″She is an excellent mother.″
At the time of the incident, the McClures were living in an apartment near the home of Cissy’s sister, the one with the daycare center. Cissy was tormented throughout the ordeal since she was supposed to be in charge of the children.
“I Was Only Gone for Five Minutes”
According to Chip’s sister Ceidi Proctor, Cissy kept saying, “I was only gone for five minutes.” She figured the kids were perfectly safe as the yard was fenced in. ″They’ve come through a lot,″ she said, referring to Chip and Cissy. ″Chip got a job, and they have their own apartment. And now to have this happen to them.″
After the rescue, Proctor was one of the many who were concerned about the psychological impact of the trauma on them. ″They are loving, church-going people,″ another neighbor said at the time. ″I’m shocked and I’m terrified for the little girl and the family.″
Jessica and Her Mom Were Close
Jessica was known as an active child who would climb onto chairs and tables and had to be warned to stay away from things. ″She loves her daddy, but her and her mother are very close,″ a family friend said of Jessica. ″Cissy has a back carrier and everywhere she went, that baby went.″
To Cissy’s credit, mistakes happen to the best of us. Obviously, the incident took a toll on everyone involved. Jessica turned out great, but growing up she had a bit of a cloud over her head…
Bullied at School
Unfortunately, Jessica became a target for bullying after kids at school learned of her identity. “There were a few times I was picked on specifically for being Baby Jessica,” she revealed. “I had a kid that called me ‘well-dweller’ for a good couple of years.”
She noted how kids can be “blunt” and simply say what’s on their minds. It didn’t help that “everybody in the world is like, ‘Oh, Baby Jessica’s got money,’ and I wore hand-me-downs.” The bullying might have led Jessica to live a more secretive life.
Her Scars Tell a Story She Can’t Remember
While she has no actual memory of the event, her physical scars tell a story and remind her that she went through something traumatic. The scar on her forehead is now faintly visible, but her right foot is noticeably smaller than her left foot.
In 2002, in an interview with Ladies Home Journal, Jessica admitted that all the talk of the incident bored her and that she was actually proud of her scars. “I have them because I survived,” she said. She also said her chronic rheumatoid arthritis doesn’t restrict her from enjoying life.
The Best-Case Scenario
Jessica doesn’t discuss the incident with her family at all. “It seems a little surreal,” her father said. “In some ways, it seems familiar and recent. Other times, it seems like someone else a long time ago.” He said his daughter isn’t a “center-of-attention person,” and that “she just doesn’t think a whole lot about it.”
In many ways, that’s the best scenario that could arise from such a traumatic event, as most such cases leave children emotionally scarred forever. In this case, it’s a good thing Jessica was as young as she was. Who knows what would have happened if she had been old enough to remember?
A Normal, Happy Six-Year-Old
In 1992, five years after the incident, Chip was interviewed about the story and how they have been holding up after the rescue. He was 23 at the time, a restaurant manager, and said that his daughter is a normal, happy 6-year-old girl.
While he and Cissy, his now ex-wife, have scrapbooks, ”full of stuff” from the rescue, neither he nor Cissy discusses the incident with Jessica unless she brings it up. The parents were sharing custody of the little girl. ”She knows about the publicity, too, but she doesn’t think anything about it. She just considers herself a normal six-year-old girl,” Chip shared.
Keeping the Press to a Limit
He was open to talk to reporters but refused to allow them to meet his daughter, explaining that they have tried to discourage publicity. Cissy, however, allowed The Associated Press to briefly talk with Jessica at one point.
Jessica told the reporter, ”I remember they got me out. I know that people were worried about me. They were scared that I wouldn’t be OK.” Her mother added, ”I know everyone loves her, but I love her, too, and I just want her to be a kid like all the other kids she goes to school with.”
They Didn’t Know Until After She Was Rescued
“If we keep writing the baby Jessica story, my child will never be normal.” Interestingly, the McClures didn’t even know how popular their daughter was until after she was rescued and in the hospital. “When all this was going on, we had no idea it was happening,” Chip mentioned.
“We didn’t have a TV because they had cut electricity to the house as a precaution. We didn’t know it was being broadcast worldwide until we got her to the hospital.” For the couple, the public attention was overwhelming.
Over 200 Calls a Day
Overwhelming is right. The story was not only all over the news; it was on an episode of the Oprah Winfrey show, made into a cover story in People magazine, and got a visit from then-Vice President George Bush.
Chip recalled getting over 200 calls a day for several months after the rescue, and letters and packages were coming in by the truckload. He still has a computer printout of names and addresses of people who wrote to them or sent gifts to his daughter.
Some Rumors Persisted
”I’d say it’s got 60,000 names. It’s 8 inches high. And that`s just from the mail we got,” he said referring to the printout. ”I feel bad that people didn`t get the response they should`ve.” Considering the sheer number of letters and calls, it was impossible to keep up with all of them.
During the frenzy, there were rumors that were not true. One particular rumor was that Jessica’s parents were gaining a small fortune that was donated to their little girl. According to divorce records, Chip and Cissy spent some of the money on a failed tractor business.
Mind Your Own Business
However, a trust fund of nearly $1 million stayed in a local bank, waiting for Jessica’s 25th birthday. At the time of the 1992 interview, Chip steadfastly refused to discuss the trust or the donations to his daughter. ”It`s none of anybody`s business.”
With all the rumors, attention, and publicity, his relationship with his wife became strained. By March 1990, they were separated. According to Chip, the divorce was inevitable and was only postponed ”because of the publicity. You don`t want to get a divorce when you`re in the public eye.”
He Learned to Keep His Mouth Shut
The press was even overwhelming for the rescuers. Aside from O’Donnell, the assistant fire chief said that it got to the point where they “really couldn`t do business.” He said they “weren`t allowed to come down off that emotional high. You couldn`t come down gracefully, and we had a few problems internally as a result.”
Five years after the fact, Chip said he was still getting supermarket tabloids pressing him for information about Jessica. When asked what he learned from what happened, he snapped, ”Number One, keep your mouth shut.”
A Lasting Parental Fear
Something else that lingered with Chip was his parental fear. ”I see kids, 3 and 4 years old, walking down the street with no parent in sight. I think, God, what are these people thinking?” He figured, ”They just ain’t thinking. After what happened, we do think about it. We do take more precautions.”
By 1995, Midland City officials discontinued the Midland Community Spirit Award, which was a prize created to commemorate the rescue. The prize was given for three years, but many citizens were tired of it, according to then Mayor J.D. Faircloth.