Jessica McClure was playing in her aunt's backyard when she fell into a narrow well shaft in October 1987. And for the next 58 hours, the nation watched breathlessly as rescuers worked to free her.
On Oct. 14, 1987, 18-month-old Jessica McClure fell into an uncapped well in her aunt’s backyard in Midland, Texas. For the next 58 hours, viewers across the country who were following the story on the news held their breath as rescuers attempted to free the girl who would become known as “Baby Jessica.”
Nearby oil workers rushed to help emergency responders, using their knowledge and tools to dig a wider shaft parallel to the well where the toddler was trapped. Finally, two-and-a-half days after the nightmare began, a paramedic pulled Baby Jessica to the surface.
Miraculously, the young girl was in good health and suffered only one major injury. One of her toes had become gangrenous due to the position in which she was wedged, and doctors had to amputate it.
After Baby Jessica’s rescue, the nation breathed a collective sigh of relief. As President Ronald Reagan later put it: “Everybody in America became godmothers and godfathers of Jessica.”
How Baby Jessica Got Trapped In A Well
Jessica McClure was born to teenage parents Lewis “Chip” and Reba “Cissy” McClure on March 26, 1986. Her aunt, Jamie Moore, ran an unlicensed daycare from her house in Midland, Texas. On the morning of Oct. 14, 1987, Jessica was at Moore’s home with eight other children, according to The New York Times.
Reba McClure was also present and helping Moore care for the children, but when she went inside to answer a phone call around 9:30 a.m., Jessica toddled toward an uncapped well shaft in the backyard. One of the other children had removed the rock or flower pot that typically covered it, leaving the eight-inch hole wide open.
Jessica tumbled inside, falling 22 feet beneath the ground before she became wedged with her right foot above her head.
Emergency responders rushed to the scene, lowering a microphone into the hole to see if she was conscious. After hearing her tiny voice, they immediately began devising a plan to free her.
The Heroic Rescue Of Jessica McClure
The tight-knit community of Midland quickly rallied together. Rescue teams worked tirelessly around the clock to pull Baby Jessica from the well, racing against time to free her before she suffered dangerous complications from starvation, dehydration, or exposure.
Midland has been referred to as the “oil capital of Texas,” and dozens of employees in the industry soon arrived on the scene to offer their equipment and knowledge. Since the well shaft was just eight inches wide, rescue workers weren’t able to climb inside. And they didn’t want to attempt to blindly pull Jessica out and risk injuring her.
Putting their heads together, emergency responders decided to dig a second shaft parallel to the well in which Jessica was trapped. They started drilling as quickly as they could, listening to the toddler through the microphone.
One detective on the scene recalled, “After listening to her for so long, I could tell her moods. At one point she was singing… I’ll never forget her singing ‘Winnie the Pooh.'”
Once the second hole was drilled, workers needed to carve a tunnel horizontally through the bedrock in order to reach Baby Jessica. They used a water jet to make the final cuts, and at last, the young girl was within reach.
Workers first inflated industrial balloons in the well shaft beneath Jessica in order to prevent her from falling deeper into the hole. Then, a paramedic named Robert O’Donnell crawled through the 24-by-36-inch stone tunnel and eased the girl out of the well. He coated her in petroleum jelly so he could slide her through the shaft more easily. After freeing Jessica, O’Donnell handed her to another paramedic who was waiting to carry her out of the hole and into an ambulance.
After 58 agonizing hours, the ordeal was finally over. Baby Jessica was safe.
A Pulitzer Prize-winning photograph captured the moment she was lifted out of the well. In the now-famous images of the rescue, a paramedic tenderly holds the toddler, her head wrapped in white gauze, her arms covered in dirt, and her eyes barely open.
The Aftermath Of The Baby Jessica Incident
Although Jessica didn’t suffer any major health issues from the two-and-a-half days she spent in the well, she did lose a toe. When her right leg became trapped above her head, blood flow was cut off, and part of her foot became gangrenous. According to NBC News, she had to undergo 15 surgeries in the years following the incident to remove the affected area and reconstruct her foot.
Aside from her toe, however, Jessica suffered only a deep scrape to her forehead in the way of physical injuries.
The toddler became a national sensation in the months following her rescue. She received cards and gifts from around the world, and her parents appeared on Live with Regis and Kathie Lee to discuss the ordeal. Jessica even traveled to the White House to meet President George H. W. Bush in 1989.
Well-wishers across the globe contributed to a trust fund for Baby Jessica, donating a total of $1.2 million that she could access when she turned 25. Unfortunately, she lost a large chunk of the money during the stock market crash of 2008, but there was enough left for her to purchase a home later in life.
As she grew older, Jessica largely disappeared from the public spotlight. She married a man named Daniel Morales in 2006, had two children of her own, and went on to become an aide to a special education teacher at a Texas elementary school.
Today, Jessica McClure doesn’t remember anything about the incident. She told PEOPLE in 2017 that the only visible signs that remain of the nightmare she went through are a small scar on her forehead and one foot that is smaller than the other due to the surgeries.
“I had God on my side that day,” Jessica said. “My life is a miracle.”
Unfortunately, not everyone involved in the rescue of Baby Jessica had a happy ending. Robert O’Donnell, the paramedic who pulled her from the well, struggled with post-traumatic stress disorder for years following the incident. He tragically died by suicide in 1995.
“Ever since that Jessica deal, his life fell apart,” his brother, Ricky, told the Associated Press. “There’s a deal that happens when people are in these real stressful situations. It’s so hard for them to deal with this afterward.”
The well that Baby Jessica fell into has since been capped, and there is an inscription carved into the cover. It reads: “For Jessica, 10-16-87, with love from all of us.”
After learning about the miraculous story of Baby Jessica, read about Mark Dickey, the cave researcher who survived being stuck in a Turkish cave for 12 days. Then, discover the story of Timothy Shaddock and his dog, Bella, who were rescued after they were stranded at sea for two months.