June 14, 2004 12:00 PM

Early on the morning of May 31, Ray Sprague was pouring himself a cup of coffee in the kitchen, when his wife, Becky, watching the news, hollered from the next room, “Jessica graduated from high school!”

“I didn’t say anything,” recalls Sprague, “but I thought to myself, ‘My Lord, time flies.'”

It was nearly 17 years ago that Sprague, then a 45-year-old EMS chief, was the first rescuer to arrive at the Midland, Texas, backyard where an 18-month-old toddler named Jessica McClure had fallen 22 feet down an eight-in.-wide abandoned well shaft while playing with other children. For the next 58 hours, as an entire nation seemed to hold its breath, Sprague and hundreds of volunteers frantically struggled until, using heavy drilling rigs, they finally managed to pull the little girl—who suffered cuts and the loss of a toe—to safety.

For some involved in the rescue, the years that followed have presented even more challenges. Jessica’s parents, Lewis “Chip” McClure and Reba “Cissy” Porter, divorced in 1990, and one rescuer, Robert O’Donnell, the paramedic who was the first to physically reach Jessica, committed suicide in 1995, in part because he was unable to adjust when his quicksilver fame faded. When Hollywood dealmakers tried to produce a TV movie, neighbors jockeyed for a piece of the pie.

But Jessica herself was kept largely out of the limelight by her parents. She has said she has no memory of her ordeal—and no apparent psychological baggage. “She’s just one of the kids,” says her high school principal, Scott Knippa, who on May 28 watched McClure graduate from Greenwood High School with 111 other seniors. “She doesn’t seem to have any interior scars at all,”

McClure, who enjoys studying journalism, has a boyfriend and plans to go on to college. At 25 she will gain access to a nearly $1 million trust fund that grew out of donations that poured in after her rescue. “She’s going to make something of herself,” says Knippa. Not because she’s Baby Jessica, he adds, but “because she’s just a good lady.”

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