Millions of Americans remember when Texas 18-month-old Jessica McClure was rescued from a backyard well after being trapped for nearly 60 hours — but the center of attention herself has no recollection of the harrowing event.
Now 30, Jessica McClure Morales — who still answers to “Baby Jessica” from friends and strangers in her hometown of Midland, Texas — understands why so many people across the country became invested in her survival in October of 1987.
“I had God on my side that day,” Jessica says in the upcoming issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands Friday. “My life is a miracle.”
Television viewers watched as hundreds of paramedics, rescuers, drilling experts and contractors feverishly worked to save the baby’s life. Meanwhile, they were reassured when they heard Jessica singing “Winnie the Pooh” from deep in the well. As long as she was singing, she was still alive.
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These days, Jessica and her family – husband Danny, 43, and children Simon, 9, and Sheyenne, 7 — enjoy a quiet life together. Jessica works as a special-education teacher’s aide at the local elementary school, while Danny is a foreman at a pipe supply company.
She has few visible signs of the ordeal three decades ago, during which she went without food or water. But her right foot, which is noticeably smaller than her left, had to be reconstructed because it became gangrenous after it was above her head during the entire episode. A scar on her forehead, sustained when she fell asleep in the well as drilling commenced, is scarcely visible.
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While some have assumed that Jessica became wealthy as an adult, thanks to a trust fund set up by people from all over who watched the rescue unfold, she says much of the $1.2 million in the trust disappeared during a stock market dive in 2008. Much of the remaining funds went toward buying the family’s modest house, which features a large backyard for the kids.
“I think it’s amazing that people would come together like that to donate money to a child that was not theirs,” she says of the generosity of strangers. “I appreciate everything they did.”
• Watch the full episode of PEOPLE Features: Baby Jessica 30 Years Later on People/Entertainment Weekly Network (PEN). Go to PEOPLE.com/PEN, or download the app for Apple TV, Roku, Amazon Fire TV, Xumo, Chromecast, Xfinity, iOS and Android devices.
Her own children are old enough now to understand what happened to her and have Googled scenes of the amazing rescue. Jessica says she hopes they learn from her rescue “to always be humble. And to remember that if you look hard enough, there are so many good people in this world.”
Jessica, who says she never expected to be remembered 30 years after the rescue, tries to make sure her children don’t feel stuck in her shadow.
“To me they’re so much more,” she says. “And can be so much more.”