HoustonChronicle.com logo HoustonChronicle.com

Section: The Chronicle's First Century

Current stories in The Chronicle's First Century:

Printer-friendly format
E-mail this story

May 7, 2001, 10:46AM


World's attention riveted on trapped toddler

ONE Wednesday evening in October 1987, Jessica McClure was playing in her aunt's back yard when she slipped down a dark, abandoned well shaft and into the international spotlight.

There, 22 feet below the surface in her Midland hometown, 18-month-old Jessica remained tightly wedged. Above, paramedics and other emergency crew were working outside the 8-inch hole under the watchful eyes of scores of reporters and photographers.

For the next 58 1/2 hours, Jessica's courage, her cries and her songs of Humpty Dumpty and Winnie the Pooh would capture the world's attention.

But in the next day's Chronicle -- Oct. 15, 1987, 24 hours after Jessica fell into the well -- two stories got better play than "Rescuers drilling desperately to reach girl trapped in well."

The lead story was about the safe return to her parents of 14-month-old Liliana Reyes. Almost two weeks earlier, a homeless woman had abducted the girl from her Houston home and taken her to a place near Mexico City. Also at the top of the page was an article about the National Football League players' strike, accompanied by a picture of Oilers owner Bud Adams visiting Jacksonville, where he listened to their pitch that he move his team there.

In the first-day coverage from Midland, correspondent Patrick Crimmins reported on Jessica's sporadic cries and the frustration of rescue crews and construction workers who began drilling a tunnel next to the shaft that held Jessica.

"It seems like we might be right on the course to the girl," Midland Police Chief Richard Czech told reporters at 6:50 a.m. "But it will be several more hours."

The next day, most of the front page was dedicated to the rescue attempt. A graphic by Chronicle artist Edwin Louie illustrated the situation: the narrow shaft in which she was imprisoned and the larger 28-foot hole drilled alongside. At the bottom, rescuers were tunneling through 2 feet of solid rock to reach Jessica. Surrounding the illustration was an 8-inch circle showing the actual size of the shaft she was trapped in.

Staff writer Mary Ann Kreps reported on the eminent rescue, writing that Jessica giggled when rescuers first touched her.

"They're finally seeing what they've been working so hard for," Cpl. Jim White of the Midland Police Department said.

The banner headline on the final morning edition Oct. 17, 1987, was "BABY JESSICA RESCUED." Kreps described the whoops of joy and cries of "Praise the Lord" as the child, covered with petroleum jelly used to facilitate her release, was brought to the surface. Paramedics then whisked Jessica to Midland Memorial Hospital.

The toddler's right foot had been lodged in an awkward position throughout the ordeal. Doctors feared it may be gangrenous and require amputation, but they were able to save it. She also had lost 3 pounds and was hungry and dehydrated.

"Emergency room physicians said Jessica was lethargic when she reached the hospital, but her attitude changed as she was put through a complete physical examination," Kreps wrote.

"She gladly accepted half an orange Popsicle, then was placed in the hospital's hyperbaric oxygen unit, a piece of machinery that supplies 100-percent pressurized oxygen. Jessica spent 90 minutes in the unit, then emerged to eat the other half of the Popsicle."

Over the next two days, the Chronicle published six stories on Jessica's recovery, the heroes and the community that had rallied around her. The front-page photograph on Oct. 19 was of then-Vice President George Bush and his wife, Barbara, at Jessica's bedside in the hospital.

It wasn't until Oct. 20 that Jessica's news moved off the front page, giving way to stories of the panic that was sweeping Wall Street and a plane that crashed into a Ramada Inn at the Indianapolis International Airport.

Since then, the Chronicle has published numerous updates on Jessica. In May 1989, Ann Hodges reported on the ABC Sunday Night Movie, Everybody's Baby: The Rescue of Jessica McClure. Her review praised the accuracy of the script and the authenticity of the actors who played Jessica's parents and her rescuers.

"Believe it or not," Hodges wrote, "ABC did get it right."

She also reported on the battles for the rights to make a movie based on Jessica's story.

"The story of that 18-month-old child was indeed shared by everybody. And just about everybody who makes TV movies wanted to make a movie of that story. The race for the rights became a scramble that threatened for a time to destroy the goodwill image that Midland and its heroic volunteer rescuers had set for the world.

"Fortunately, though, all that was ironed out, and the happy ending is this happy ending for ABC's fine film," Hodges said.

Ten years after Jessica's rescue, Jim Schutze, a reporter for the Chronicle's Dallas Bureau, reported on the extraordinary circumstances surrounding the normal life that her parents fought to give her.

"Jessica lives with her mother and stepfather, makes A's and B's in a small private school and plays with children who know and care even less about her rescue than she does," Schutze wrote. "The gifts that poured in after the rescue left Jessica with a $700,000 trust fund, managed by a local bank, not accessible to her parents except for medical and education expenses."

Jessica's parents, Chip and Cissy, who are now divorced, limited her exposure to the media and granted only one interview to a national magazine on the 10th anniversary.

Schutze wrote about the Midland Community Spirit Award, which recognizes a community every two years in the United States that has exhibited a spirit of volunteer heroism reminiscent of Baby Jessica's rescue.

David Eyre, who wrote the screenplay for the ABC movie, told Schutze that all the good and bad that happened after Jessica's rescue didn't change the core of the story.

"The fundamental thing is that a little girl fell in a well, and she was saved," Eyre said. "I think it should be remembered as a truly monumental achievement, as something that brought out the very best in people."

Today in Midland, the well that Jessica fell into has been covered. On the cap are these words: "For Jessica, 10/16/87, with love from all of us."

The newly designed Chronicle is now half-price for new subscribers!
Houston Chronicle e-Edition
Free 3-day sample