The Epic Rescue of Jessica McClure
A tiny child's ordeal moves strong men to tears -- and launches a prodigious effort to bring her back alive
It was about 9:30 a.m. on Wednesday, Oct. 14 that 18-month-old Jessica McClure, playing with four other toddlers at her Aunt Jamie Moore’s home day- care center in Midland, Texas, somehow slipped into an abandoned well shaft. Exactly how she did it may never be known; neighbors and relatives say a flowerpot had been propped over the well’s eight-inch opening; Jessica’s mother, 18-year-old Reba (Cissy) McClure, insists that the hole had been covered with a heavy rock. Father Chip McClure, also 18, was at work. Cissy had stepped away for a moment when she heard the children screaming. Discovering what had happened, she says she was ”scared, panicked. I didn’t know what to do. I just ran in and called the police. They were there within three minutes, but it felt like a lifetime.”
Thus began baby Jessica’s 58- hour ordeal. In the end her deliverance was a good, a powerful, an unforgettable memory for a lot of people in Midland — especially for her rescuers, some of whom rose to eloquence in describing the drama on the following pages to correspondents Lianne Hart and Anne Maier.
Bobbie Jo (”B.J”) Hall, 32, police officer: I was the first officer on the scene. I arrived at the same time as the first paramedics. The mother met us at the front door of the house. She was very upset, but she was able to direct us to where the child was. She yelled, ”She’s here in back. She fell down right here.” Then she said, ”I can’t let my baby die! I’ve got to get her out!” I went over and looked down the hole, but I couldn’t see anything. I called the baby’s name three or four times and didn’t hear anything. Finally I got a cry in response. We didn’t know how deep she was until we lowered a tape hooked to a flashlight into the hole.
Those first 15 minutes seemed like hours, but basically all we did was start calling for equipment. I said, ”We gotta get her some air down there!” I told the dispatcher to get ahold of some oxygen equipment. About that time it got very chaotic. People were arriving fast. We all called to the baby. We used our flashlights to look down the hole, but we never could get a visual on her. We didn’t get one until later in the afternoon, when we lowered a video camera down there and got a side view of her. The mother was pretty panicky. She was frantic. She was starting to go into shock, I thought. I just tried to get her talking. I told her I had children too, so I understood how she felt. I told her we weren’t going to let her baby die. That’s what she kept worrying about — her baby dying.
Once all the equipment started rolling in, she calmed down a little. It was wild. We tore down fences; we tore down clotheslines — all kinds of things to get that equipment in. The first thing we tried was a backhoe the city brought over. It dug down two or three feet and then hit rock. We knew we didn’t have the time to dig through rock with a backhoe, so they called for this big rat- hole rig. That’s something like an oil rig, only smaller. It’s used to put in telephone poles. I was there the first 22 hours. Then I went home to my own kids and came back Friday and stayed until they got Jessica out at 7:55 p.m. We took turns staying by the hole talking to her. Every time she’d cry or whimper, it was kind of a ”Help me, I’m hurt” kind of whimper. Our hearts went up in our throats when we heard it, but not hearing her was even worse. Sometimes she would go 30 or 40 minutes without a sound, and we’d all get hysterical and start calling her again until we’d get a response. I guess she was getting tired and would fall asleep from time to time.
Andy Glasscock, 36, detective: We began to shout down the well, and Jessica responded with whimpers and cries. After listening to her for so long, I could tell her moods. At one point she was singing. At another point, when a jackhammer started up, she didn’t say any words but used kind of a huffy little voice. You could tell it was an angry voice. I would say 80 percent of the time she was either crying or making some kind of noise we could hear. When we weren’t calling words of encouragement, we’d tell her to sing for us. I’ll never forget her singing ”Winnie-the-Pooh.” We’d say, ”How does a kitten go?” And she’d respond to us. We’d promise her things like a Cadillac if she’d stop crying — I don’t guess she’d try to collect on that one.
David Lilly, 51, special investigator with the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration, rescue director: I grew up in West Virginia, and my family were all miners. Over the years I’ve seen it all. I’ve been in a lot of recovery work, lifted rock off people who were crushed, retrieved people from shafts. I’ve seen lots of fatalities. But I’ve never seen anything like this in my life. I flew in from New Mexico Thursday morning. When I arrived on the scene, the police chief and fire chief were trying to organize the rescue, and it was total chaos. They had no experience and didn’t know what they were doing. They interviewed me for about 10 minutes to see what I knew, I guess, and then put me in charge.
By the time I’d got there, they had already sunk a parallel shaft about 29 feet into the ground, 30 inches wide, and they were starting on a horizontal drift toward the well that would have brought them right into where the girl was. That would have been disastrous, because they would have had to break the well in on her. So right away I changed the angle of the horizontal drift so it would break through two feet below her. I made several changes in the way the work was being done. They’d been using some old two-inch, star-shaped bits that would wear down after just a few inches. Then they would take them up and sharpen them again. So I got in some bits that were made of tungsten carbide.
Our strategy was that we would drill a series of holes in a square about 24 inches across and 18 inches down. The holes would be no more than two inches apart. Then we would take down a 45- pound jackhammer, also with a tungsten bit, and hold it there to knock out the rock. We were going at about an inch an hour. It was terribly hard rock, and it was slow going because you had to lie down on your stomach holding a 45- pound jackhammer in front of you. But I’ve never seen more dedicated people.