Ten years ago this week, little Jessica McClure was rescued from an abandoned well in a drama that brought out some of the best and the worst in human nature.
Today, she is an 11-year-old who makes A’s and B’s at school, plays the piano and French horn and whizzes through her neighborhood on skates. The sixth-grader is said to have no memory at all of the 58-hour ordeal.
“More than anything, I want her to have a normal childhood,” said Cissy Porter, who was 18 when her daughter plunged down the 22-foot hole. “We want everyone to know that she’s fine, that she’s a healthy, active, loving girl. But we don’t want people recognizing her everywhere she goes.”
The girl’s divorced parents, Porter and Chip McClure, seem eager to let the anniversary pass quietly, granting just one interview, to Ladies Home Journal. Shunning attention, too, are many of the rescuers in this oilfield city who have been linked ever since to the wide-eyed toddler.
Jessica told the magazine she likes Beanie Babies and animals, and has nine dogs and cats. She’s bored by talk of the incident, which claimed her right little toe and left some minor scars from skin grafts.
“I’m proud of them,” she said of the scars. “I have them because I survived.”
The nightmares that plagued her early childhood are long gone.
“She doesn’t remember any of it,” said Midland police Sgt. Andy Glasscock, who was a fixture at the scene. “About the only thing she remembers is what people tell her and what she sees on the news.”
A poll taken by The Pew Research Center for the People and the Press measuring coverage of Princess Diana’s death found that in the past decade, only Jessica’s rescue rivaled the Paris car accident in worldwide attention. Not everyone understands the fuss.
“This was just a one-child disaster,” said former Midland Fire Chief James Roberts. “As we speak, somewhere in the United States an 18-month-old baby is in trouble, and the fire department is on the scene trying to save her life.”
Ten years ago, Chip and Cissy McClure were poor teenagers struggling to make ends meet during the depths of the oil bust. While visiting her sister, Mrs. McClure left Jessica in the yard while she went to answer the phone. Moments later, Jessica happened upon an 8-inch hole and innocently touched off a global event.
Rescue crews and citizen volunteers united to dig a shaft parallel to the one that trapped Jessica. A layer of super-hard rock complicated the operation.
“I don’t think I ever drilled through anything harder than that,” said driller Charles Boler. “You could hear her crying as we got closer. That’s what kept me going because I had a 2-year-old child at the time and I could identify with the family.”
On Oct. 16, 1987, paramedics Steve Forbes and Robert O’Donnell wriggled into the passageway, slathered a frightened Jessica in petroleum jelly and slid her out into the bright television lights.
Afterward, sympathetic strangers from around the world who had watched Jessica’s drama inundated her with teddy bears, homemade gifts, cards and cash.
The money, estimated at $1 million or more, sits in a trust fund waiting for her to turn 25. Her family has asked that photos not show her full face because they fear she will be kidnapped.
Once the cameras left Midland behind, Jessica recovered quickly. The same could not be said of everyone around her.
“Everybody got the big head. Everybody was somebody,” Glasscock said. “We were just little country guys doing our jobs. Then the movie contract divided us up.”
At issue was how the rescuers were to be portrayed in a TV movie of the week. Municipal workers wanted one producer; volunteers wanted another. It escalated into two months of bickering that had divided a community Jessica was supposed to have united. Then-Mayor Carroll Thomas finally had to appoint a five-member committee to settle things.
In the end, most were satisfied with how the rescue was recreated in “Jessica: Everyone’s Baby,” even though many residents still grumble that Midland was made to look like a backwater town.
The McClures also were criticized for quickly spending at least $80,000 of the money sent to them. Much of it went toward a failed business. They divorced in 1990.
The couple told Ladies’ Home Journal they battled persistent whispers, including stories that their young marriage already was on the rocks when Jessica fell.
“The most ridiculous rumors circulated,” McClure said. “Some said I was in jail or on drugs.”
In 1995, rescuer O’Donnell shot and killed himself at his parents’ ranch outside Midland. His brother, Ricky, said O’Donnell’s life “fell apart” because of the stress of the rescue, the attention it created and the anticlimactic return to everyday life.
Now that the oilfields are bustling again, Midland has reclaimed its status in Texas as a petroleum hotbed. Outside the state, though, Midland will always be remembered as the town that rescued Jessica.
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