IT was 30 years ago today on Wednesday, October 14, that baby Jessica McClure fell down a well in the back yard of her aunt’s house in Midland, Texas, and briefly became the most famous person in the world.

For Jessica got stuck in the 8 inch (20cm) water well pipe some 22 feet (6.7m) below the surface and there followed a race against time to save the 18-month-old girl’s life, with the international broadcast and print media looking on.

At one point it seemed that the whole world was watching, hoping and praying for the little girl to be rescued, and thankfully this was a story that had a happy ending.


JESSICA was the lively child of Chip and Reba Gayle McClure, who were just 18 and 17 respectively at the time of their baby’s ordeal.

Just after 9.30am that morning, Jessica was playing with four other toddlers in the back yard of her aunt Jamie Moore’s home, which acted as a day care centre for local children. Jessica’s mother, known as Cissy, was helping supervise the kids when she was momentarily distracted.

No-one knows to this day how Jessica got into the well, which was covered with a flowerpot, but the children began screaming and Cissy rushed to find her daughter trapped down the well and out of sight. She ran for the telephone and called the emergency services.

Police officer Bobbie Jo Hall was first on the scene and called down the hole. At first there was no reply, but then he would hear Jessica whimpering.

Still she could not be seen, but by lowering a long tape they established that she was 22ft down. Officer Hall called for all sorts of emergency equipment and then dozens of police and fire officers appeared. In the afternoon a video camera was lowered down the well and it was established that Jessica was firmly stuck but alive.


UNDERSTANDABLY there was considerable confusion and debate about how to extricate Jessica without hurting her, not least because the well seemed utterly solid and impenetrable.

As the long day turned into night, from time to time Jessica would fall asleep and her family and their friends would be frantic until she answered their calls with her favourite song from Winnie the Pooh.

By then the local media had been alerted and, just as in the Billy Wilder film Ace in the Hole, the press took some criticism for what happened next: a giant media circus grew around the yard, and the fledgling CNN television channel went live from the scene. The major channels had to compete, and soon overseas media people were arriving in Midland.

All of a sudden the story of the trapped girl became headline news across the world, and churches of all denominations offered prayers for her rescue.


THE police and fire department, working with oil rig equipment, had decided to drill a second shaft, this time some 30 inches wide, parallel to the well. It was touch work, however, as the surroundings were solid rock.

David Lilly, a special investigator with the US Mine Safety and Health Administration, flew in from New Mexico and took charge of the rescue operation. He immediately ordered the drillers to change their angle of attack so that they would break through to the well two feet underneath Jessica rather than alongside her.

The shaft was sunk quickly but the final breakthrough into the well could only be accomplished by rescuers working flat on their stomachs wielding 45lb jackhammers. “I’ve never seen more dedicated people,” said Lilly, and some had to be almost dragged away after finishing their turn at the drilling.


THE rescuers knew they were running out of time as Jessica had been without food or water for more than two days and was both dehydrated and losing weight, leading to fears she would slip further down the well. With news of the slow progress being broadcast globally, it was not until the evening of Friday October 16 that Lilly himself made the breakthrough into the well using a high-pressure water jet, opening up a gap through which a slim man could reach.

He then turned to paramedic Robert O’Donnell, who slowly and surely manoeuvred Jessica out of her trap, to massive cheers from the watching crowd and relief around the world. Americans were able to watch her emerge alive. Almost 60 hours had passed, and Jessica was in a poor state – she had to have a toe amputated because of gangrene and her forehead was scarred for life.


ONCE fully recovered, Jessica was invited to Washington by Vice-President George Bush, a former Midland resident, while President Ronald Reagan said that all Americans had been her godparents in those terrible hours.

Now Jessica McClure Morales, and divorced with two children of her own, Baby Jessica’s life was never going to be normal, not least because donations poured in and a trust fund was set up for her – a fund that was severely depleted in the 2008 financial crash.

Films and documentaries were made about her story, but there was a tragic incident eight years after the rescue – Robert O’Donnell suffered post-traumatic stress disorder and killed himself in 1995.

CNN’s successful broadcasting of the story virtually overnight changed the way the media worked, and now 24 hour rolling news is the norm and not the exception that it was in 1987.

Baby Jessica, as she is still known in Midland, was able to buy a home for herself. It is less than two miles from the scene of the ordeal that changed her life forever.