Published on August 17, 2021

The View from my Seat

How we in the media covered the Baby Jessica story

And the tragic plight of the man who pulled her out of the well

By Ernie Williamson / The Bulletin

Jessica McClure was only 18 months old when she became the center of a drama that captivated the nation and helped change the way we consume news.

On Oct. 14, 1987, while playing in her aunt’s yard in Midland, Jessica fell into an eight-inch diameter well and became trapped 22 feet down.

The rescue of Jessica was revisited 34 years later by CNN in the recent documentary “58 hours: The Baby Jessica Story.”

CNN was the first 24-hour news channel and was taking on the network giants. The Jessica story was just what the fledgling network needed.

As managing editor of the Houston Post at the time, I remember the Baby Jessica story well.

Before leaving work that October day, I checked the wire services one last time and noticed a short wire service story about Jessica. It was buried among bigger national and international events. Rescue efforts were just starting.

Gut instinct told me the story about the small girl would develop into a big story, one worth sending our own reporter and photographer to cover.

There were, however, reasons not to do that. The paper was struggling financially, and it would be cheaper to leave it to the wire services. Also, Jessica could have been rescued by the time we got to Midland.

One overriding factor influenced my decision to send a team to Midland: Houston was a two-newspaper town in those days, and I relished the thought of competing against the Houston Chronicle on what would turn out to be a great human-interest story.

I like to think I was the only editor to realize the story’s potential. I wasn’t.

By the next day, news vans lined the Midland streets and reporters slept on couches in local homes in order to stay close to the action.

Journalists were separated from the drilling scene by a fence. So, they brought ladders. The taller the ladder, the better the angle.

I remember our photographer telling me he was afraid to leave his spot in the backyard to go to the bathroom or get something to eat. He feared missing the rescue … and worried another photographer would grab his spot.

The rescue was agonizingly slow.

Rescuers drilled a 30-inch wide, 29-foot-deep hole parallel to the well. They then drilled a horizontal tunnel between the two wells about two feet below where Baby Jessica was trapped.
In the meantime, rescue workers pumped oxygen into the well and maintained constant communication. One rescuer remembers the little girl singing “Winnie the Pooh.”

The drama was covered live on CNN. For only the second time in American history, the entire nation watched literally around the clock. (The first being the explosion of the Space Shuttle Challenger a year earlier.)

People watched because, unlike most tragedies, there was a chance of a rescue.

Finally, on the evening of Oct. 16, 58 hours after the ordeal began, Baby Jessica was lifted out of the well by Robert O’Donnell, a paramedic who was slender enough to fit down the tunnel and come up under Baby Jessica.

O’Donnell, who reportedly was claustrophobic, had struggled to free the baby at first.

Her leg, pinned above her head, held her firmly in place. But inch by inch, with the help of lubricating jelly smeared on the walls of the well, O’Donnell pulled Jessica free.

In the darkness of night lit by giant floodlights, our Post photographer sent us a great picture just in time for the next morning’s paper.

Scott Shaw of the Odessa American won a Pulitzer Prize for his picture of Jessica cradled in the arms of a paramedic. He had the best angle.

The New York Times reported 3.2 million households watched the final moments of the rescue.
For better or worse, many point to the coverage of Baby Jessica as a major factor in the development of the 24-hour news cycle.

According to Biography.com, Jessica underwent 15 surgeries to treat complications of being trapped in a well for three days without food or water.

Now, 34 years later, Jessica leads an ordinary life. She is married and is the mother of two children.
She does not often speak about her rescue and has insisted it has had little impact on her life.

O’Donnell became an American hero, for a while. The White House honored him, and Hollywood besieged him.

However, according to the Los Angeles Times, O’Donnell being in the limelight was more of a curse than a blessing.

In 1995, four days after the Oklahoma City bombing with its traumatic images of wounded babies and distressed firefighters, O’Donnell drove out on the prairie of his family’s ranch and stuck a shotgun to his head.

“I’m sorry to check out this way,” he wrote on a scrap of paper. “But life sucks.”
He left two boys behind.

(Ernie Williamson welcomes reader input. Please contact Ernie at williamsonernie@gmail.com. Or, send letters in care of The Bulletin, PO Box 2426, Angleton, TX. 77516)

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