America held its breath as rescuers worked to free Jessica McClure from a well 14 years ago.
It’s an image that’s become too familiar: a bandaged, dirt-caked child cradled by an exhausted firefighter. But unlike the aftermath of Sept. 11, the sight of 18-month-old Jessica McClure being pulled from the depths of a Midland, Tex., well on Oct. 16, 1987, was cause for celebration. And much like recent events, TV coverage of the rescue had the nation riveted. The 58-hour ordeal began Wednesday morning, Oct. 14. While visiting her sister’s home day-care center, 18-year-old Reba ”Cissy” McClure left Jessica playing with other children in the backyard. Momentarily unattended to, the toddler fell 22 feet into an abandoned well, its 8-inch opening said to be covered only with a rock. ”[I was] scared, panicked,” the mother told PEOPLE. ”I didn’t know what to do. I just ran in and called the police.”
Soon, hundreds of rescue workers — police officers, firefighters, paramedics, volunteers — had gathered at the site, along with a pack of local and national reporters and TV crews. Then – U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration investigator David Lilly arrived Thursday morning and supervised as workers dug a hole parallel to the well. Lilly and crew drilled down and below Baby Jessica (as she came to be known in the media), hoping to free her without injury. ”This is oil country, so we were able to get the equipment quickly,” says Midland’s assistant fire chief Eddie Klatt.
Because of the threat of hypothermia, rescuers worked nonstop over the next two days to save the toddler, who sang nursery rhymes, whimpered for her mother, and napped throughout the ordeal. The effort was grueling. ”They were exhausted mentally and physically,” says Klatt. ”We had guys that we literally had to grab hold of and pull out of the hole.”
Finally, on Friday evening at 7:55, paramedic Robert O’Donnell, 30, freed the child, who was found in a split — left leg dangling, right leg by her ear. McClure was rushed to the hospital, but not before viewers around the world who’d been following the story had taken in the image of the bruised child, swaddled in gauze.
McClure, now a 15-year-old Midland high school student, soon recovered from minor injuries and seemed immune to the attention lavished on her. The same can’t be said of others. In the years after the rescue, locals squabbled over movie rights (”Everybody’s Baby: The Rescue of Jessica McClure” aired on ABC in ’89), Jessica’s parents divorced, and O’Donnell committed suicide, largely as a result of his struggle with sudden fame.
But the heroism of the rescuers, and how their efforts united our nation, remains to this day. ”There’s no way you can compare it to the disaster of New York City,” says Klatt. ”But in a very, very small way, the Jessica McClure story drives the American spirit.”