By Susan Schindehette Anne Maier
November 07, 1988 12:00 PM

Strong men’s hands were gently easing her tiny body from a narrow hole in the earth when first we saw her. As Jessica McClure finally emerged into the blinding light, it was as if she were “physically being born again,” said a rescue worker. Lifted from the abandoned well that had been her prison for 58 hours, the bruised and dirtied 18-month-old was swaddled in gauze bandaging before being rushed off to Midland Memorial Hospital. In spite of her ordeal, as millions of anxious television viewers saw for themselves, Jessica’s blue eyes were wide and alert. The nation, indeed people the world over, heaved a collective sigh of relief; the hapless little girl who had toddled so close to death, who had sustained herself by singing nursery rhymes during her nightmarish entombment, had survived.

For many, Jessica McClure’s rescue was a symbolic reminder of the value of a single human life—and of the triumph of a community that pulled together in a time of crisis. After Jessica’s deliverance, one of the estimated 450 volunteer rescuers, Willie Thames, 50, a welder, made and inscribed a metal well cap with the words: “For Jessica, 10-16-87, with love from all of us.” It was a simple commemoration of a small miracle, one that would be forever emblazoned on the memories of all who witnessed it—all that is, except Jessica herself.

One year after her ordeal, Reba “Cissy” and Lewis “Chip” McClure’s only child has little memory of the trauma. Dressed in cotton panties and just up from her afternoon nap, she totes Kitty, her favorite stuffed animal, and tumbles out into the modest living room of her suburban three-bedroom home in Midland, Texas. A filament of scarring running down her forehead is all that remains of the operation that repaired a silver dollar-size wound caused by her fall. Another small scar at the back of her head is obscured by blond wisps of baby hair. As she pirouettes across the carpet, Jessica limps slightly from the loss of a gangrenous portion of the little toe on her right foot. Remarkably, according to her mother, Baby Jessica’s scars seem to be exclusively external. “She hasn’t had any nightmares,” says Cissy, 19. “And she’s very brave. She’s not afraid of anything.” Despite warnings that she might become claustrophobic, “Jessica loves to climb into tight places,” says Cissy proudly.

Chip McClure, also 19, figures his daughter is “too little to remember. She thinks she was rescued by Motsie [her nickname for her maternal grandmother] and Winnie-the-Pooh.”

There were, of course, a few others involved. Jessica McClure was saved by the people of Midland, 250 miles east of El Paso, and by drillers, miners and volunteers from as far away as Albuquerque, who selflessly dropped everything and rushed to where their skills were needed. It was the town’s noblest hour. Midland’s church bells rang out the news of the child’s deliverance at 7:55 p.m. on Oct. 16, 1987, and a caravan of joyfully honking cars trailed her ambulance to the hospital where she would recover over the next four weeks. Certainly in the giddiness following the successful rescue, no one divined that the heartwarming story of Baby Jessica might have its downside.

During the boom times of the late ’70s, when oil had jumped from $9 to $40 a barrel, Midland had the country’s highest density of millionaires. But when oil prices collapsed, so did Midland’s economy. Times had been hard, and when Hollywood showed up within days of the rescue talking movie and dangling riches, more than a few heard the distinct knock of opportunity. Temptation first took the form of a man called Larry Spivey, who billed himself as a producer and tracked down Cissy McClure at the hospital. “He came on up to me,” says Cissy, a lively woman with a slight twang. “He had his shirt unbuttoned to his waist and lots of gold chains around his neck. You could tell he thought he was really something.”

Before Spivey got a chance to offer the McClures a deal for the movie rights to their story, they turned him down. He took his pitch to rescue workers. He talked to Dave Lilly, special investigator with the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration, who had directed the rescue. He talked to paramedics Robert O’Donnell and Steve Forbes, who had carried Jessica out. He talked to cops and firemen, drillers and shovelers. He threw a big lunch for the rescuers at a Midland hotel, offering them $10,000 each for their recollections and promising that the movie would be made right there, starring Midlanders.

Soon some 10 other representatives of movie production companies had followed Spivey’s lead, whipping up the fever. One group of locals formed the McClure Rescue Association to represent their interests in dealing with the fast-talking interlopers. “The group was mainly concerned with having the movie made right,” says a member, attorney Martin Allday. “There wasn’t enough money in it for anything else to be the prime concern.”

But rival townsfolk, cut out of that picture, formed a competing group, the Jessica McClure Rescuers’ Association, to make sure they got their share of the money and that their stories got told. Within months things clearly had gotten out of hand. Last March the Dallas Morning News, like many papers around the country, had dubbed Midland the town overcome by greed. “How sad, and worse yet, how predictable,” wrote columnist Ed Bark. “Hollywood was bound to call, and Midland was bound to succumb.”

Meanwhile the McClures felt caught between the two groups and sidestepped any endorsements. “Their gratitude is to everyone,” said friend and spokesman Pete Snelson. Chip and Cissy were more disturbed by the gossip around town than by the scramble for movie deals. Loose tongues claimed Cissy was a negligent mother who hardly ever visited Jessica in the hospital and showed up decked out in diamonds and furs when she did. “Those rumors were funny because they were so ridiculous,” Cissy says.

Someone saw Chip driving a family friend to the 7-Eleven one night, and word went round that he was having an affair. (That one so upset Cissy that she stormed off to confront Chip at work, where he explained and calmed her down.)Then when the McClures paid cash for a $30,000 brick tract house outside Midland and bought a new custom pickup and a shiny black Thunderbird, rumors swirled that they were buying Mercedeses and Rolls-Royces, luxuriating in their daughter’s misfortune. “Our friends and family know it isn’t true,” says Cissy now. “That’s all that matters.”

The McClures acknowledge that Jessica’s financial security is assured, thanks to the thousands of donations that poured in, but they won’t discuss the size of the trust fund (estimates place the figure at $700,000) that will be available to Jessica when she turns 25. While Chip maintains that they are “not exactly living Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous,” Cissy admits that some things have changed. “We used to hang with people who live in apartments,” she says. “Now we hang with people who live a middle-class life.”

The couple shrugs off charges of profiteering. “We will only use [the donations] for medical expenses directly related to Jessica’s injuries from the well or for her education,” says Cissy. “She’ll go to private school. I want her to get a good start on her education. I didn’t get a good start on mine.” Their baby’s new wealth has become a factor in the McClures’ decision not to have another child, who would not be as financially independent as Jessica. “There’s no way we could do for another what Jessica will be able to do for herself,” says Cissy.

The McClures met as ninth graders and married in 1985, when they were high school sophomores. They have learned to cope with the media spotlight and Jessica’s public appearances—dropping a baseball into catcher Geno Petralli’s mitt at the Texas Rangers’ opener last spring or presiding over a Fourth of July parade in Washington, D.C. “I’ve grown up a lot. I used to be real shy. Being exposed to the media really helped me,” says soft-spoken Chip, who left his job as a housepainter to become a salesman at the Sportsman’s Den—a job, he points out, promised him before the rescue and its publicity.

Aside from the reporter who tried to crash Jessica’s second-birthday party last March or the one who posed as a tourist at the Midland fire department’s Easter egg-hunt fund-raiser to get shots of the family, one of the most trying consequences of Jessica’s rescue has been the resulting stream of financial solicitations. “What’s really hard for us are all the people who write us letters about their children’s problems and expect us to help them, “says Chip. The mother of a sick 14-year-old recently requested their help in caring for her child. “She can’t afford to put him in the hospital,” says Chip. “She wanted us to pay for it.”

Chip, whose mother died when he was 5, who lost a brother to AIDS two years ago and whose father had a stroke last summer, is philosophical about all that has befallen the family. “The way I look at it, all those kinds of things are going to happen to everybody sooner or later in life,” he says. “It’s just as well to have them all bunched up together.” “It hasn’t really balanced out, but some good comes out of all bad,” he continues. “We really understand now that the Lord has a plan for everything. So we’re not grudgeful about what happened to Jessica.”

And, after the unseemly, heady rush to cash in on all the movie offers, Midland itself seems to have come back to its senses in an exemplary way. Last March, Mayor Carroll Thomas appointed a blue-ribbon committee of five civic leaders, led by banker Wayne Merritt and including the pastor of the First Baptist Church, to field all proposals and decide who should make the movie. The committee selected the L.A. firm of Interscope (Outrageous Fortune) Productions. As a sign of good faith, the first rescuers’ group disbanded.

The McClures okayed a deal with Interscope for a TV docudrama set to film next April. The second rescuers’ group is still loosely organized but quiet. And Larry Spivey has departed for parts unknown. “[Spivey] should have been run out of town on a rail,” says Midland police detective sergeant Andy Glasscock. “We all bought it hook, line and sinker. We were just a bunch of country boys. All the rescuers are pretty close again,” Glasscock adds. “There’s a little girl alive today because the town pulled together, and that’s all that matters.”

A dog-eared copy of the best-selling parents’ manual The Strong-Willed Child sits on an end table in the McClure living room, testimony to the fact that Jessica, like most 2-year-olds, is a handful. Her favorite word is no, she would rather watch Winnie-the-Pooh, her favorite video, than give in to Cissy’s valiant attempts to dress her, and her demands for ice cream are so incessant that soon after her whining begins, she gets it. Clearly the beguiling, demanding child who rules the McClure roost is heedless of last October’s events.

Two weeks ago, in a small ceremony, Midland erected a bronze plaque in commemoration of Jessica’s rescue. Placed on a wall of the town’s civic center, the four-by six-foot bas relief by local artist Mary Griffith depicts workers lifting a baby girl from a well. “Nothing the heart gives away is gone,” reads the legend around the border. “It is kept in the hearts of others.”

—Susan Schindehette, and Anne Maier in Midland