real life

In 1987, the world watched as 'Baby Jessica' was rescued from a well. This is her life now.

On October 14, 1987, 18-month-old Jessica McClure fell into a well in Midland, Texas.

She’d been playing in the backyard of her aunt’s home, turned daycare centre, when her mother Cissy, who had been watching her, took a phone call and very briefly turned away.

The well she stumbled into was 6.7 metres deep and only 20 centimetres in diameter. It would take 58 hours to retrieve her, in a story that captured international headlines.

WATCH: Jessica interviewed 30 years on from the rescue. 

Video via People TV

Retrieving ‘Baby Jessica’, as she was referred to by the media, could be compared to the 2018 cave rescue of the young soccer team in Thailand. All eyes were on the extraordinarily difficult rescue mission, which required the use of a rat-hole rig – a machine normally used to plant telephone poles in the ground.

Rescue teams had to drill a deep hole parallel to the well, and then drill a horizontal tunnel between the two, which popped open about 60cm below where Jessica was trapped in the well’s shaft. It took forever to drill the sideways tunnel because the jackhammers were designed to go down, not across.

In the meantime, oxygen was pumped down the well and rescuers would sing nursery rhymes down the opening, as they tried to comfort the moaning, wailing toddler.

Rescuers Digging to Save Baby Jessica McClure
The rescue mission to save 18 month old Jessica McClure. Image: Getty.

The entire rescue ordeal was covered live on CNN, America's first - and at that time only - 24-hour news network. It was the second time (the first being the explosion of the Challenger space shuttle) the country had watched an around-the-clock dramatic news story unfold in real life time before their eyes.

Many say the story of Baby Jessica was the turning point in the history of news media, and is when the world of "24 hour news" really started.

The little girl was inundated by presents and donations. The more than AUD $1 million in donations addressed to Baby Jessica were put away in a trust fund until she turned 25. Money given to the family went towards a house in the suburbs, two new cars, and her father Chip's dream of opening up a tractor rental business.

On the evening of October 16, 1987, Baby Jessica was lifted out to safety. The photos captured Jessica cradled in the arms of a paramedic, her head wrapped in white gauze, her arms caked in dirt, and her eyes barely open. One of them even won a Pulitzer Prize.

Rescue Operation for Jessica McClure
Rescuers worked for 58 hours to free "Baby Jessica" from a well. Image: David Woo/Sygma via Getty.

Baby Jessica underwent 15 surgeries in the next few years. Due to her foot hanging above her during the ordeal, she lost a toe to gangrene and had to have her entire foot reconstructed. She was also left with a small diagonal scar from her hairline to the bridge of her nose.

Two and a half years after the accident, Jessica's parents filed for divorce. They were only 18-years-old when they were thrust into the limelight with their daughter, and even after she was rescued they became overwhelmed by the avalanche of publicity that was suddenly a part of their life. Their divorce was messy, and every new snippet of gossip played out in the tabloid press. They both went on to remarry.

Baby Jessica parents
Jessica and her parents Cissy and Chip. Image: People TV.

Despite her parent's drama, Baby Jessica's childhood remained shielded and pretty normal. It wasn't until she was five that she learned what happened to her after watching an episode of Rescue 911 and asking her step mum who the little girl in the well was.

Eight years after the accident, Robert O'Donnell, the paramedic who shimmied down the shaft to rescue her, died by suicide.

After being hailed a hero, Robert enjoyed instant fame but he found it hard to return to normal life after it all disappeared.

After his death, his brother told Spokesman, "Ever since that Jessica deal, his life fell apart".

He told his mother four days before his death, after watching the rescuers helping the victims of a bomb explosion in Oklahoma, "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." Psychologists later suggested that he suffered from post traumatic stress disorder brought on by the rescue.

Growing up, Jessica didn't speak to the media much.

In 2002, aged 15, she told Ladies Home Journal, that the incident "bored her" while also disclosing for the first time that she lives with rheumatoid arthritis.

Jessica McClure Rescued from the Well
"Baby Jessica" McClure after she was rescued. Image: Bill Nation/Sygma via Getty.

In 2006, at the age of 19, she married Daniel Morales and the couple had two children, Simon and Sheyenne, two years apart.

By the time she was 25 and had access to the trust fund created for her all those years ago, her youngest was the same age she was when she fell down the well.

"When my husband and I first started dating he did not know who I was. It was love at first sight. About a month into our relationship we were already engaged," she told People TV.

The family used the money to buy a modest house just three kilometres from the accident site, but they lost a lot of the money in the stock market dive in 2008.

Jessica and family
Jessica and her family in 2019. Image: People TV.

In 2017, it was reported by People that Jessica was working as an assistant to a special education teacher at an elementary school in Midland.

Aged 34, her Facebook lists that as her former job, with her profile now reading "stay at home mum". She tries to keep a low profile in the media, but on the 30th anniversary of her rescue, three years ago, she revealed she didn't remember the accident that made her famous all those years ago.

"Seeing the well for the first time (as an adult) it was hard, but it wasn't upsetting," she told People. "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."

She wants to use the event and spectacle to teach her kids to "always be humble," to never forget where they come from and to not take life for granted.

Her dad remembered the terrifying event just last year writing on Facebook: "32 years ago today, my daughter Baby Jessica, captured the world's attention and everyone's hearts as she quietly sang Winnie the Pooh from 22' below the surface. She was so close we could almost touch her, so close that we could hear her muffled cries unaided and with heartbreaking clarity through a single microphone lowered down that well."

"Thank you for reading, for praying, for caring," he said.

The well has been closed up and memorialised, and still attracts tourists to this day.

It reads: "For Jessica, 10-16-97, with love from all of us."

A memorial sits on top of the tiny well opening that Jessica fell down. Image: by Barbara Laing / Liaison Agency/ Getty.

Feature image: Getty/People TV.

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