October 14, 1987: Left alone briefly in her aunt’s Midland, Texas, backyard while her mother went inside to answer the phone, 18-month-old “Baby Jessica” McClure fell into an abandoned 22-foot-deep well.
Firemen, paramedics, and a cadre of drillers struggled to reach her as the town of Midland immediately united for the mission. A fledgling CNN picked up local TV station KMID’s video feed of Baby Jessica’s rescue, and the story became the first live round-the-clock news event, garnering an immense worldwide audience.
Three days into the rescue, paramedic Robert O’Donnell (who was claustrophobic) wriggled down a parallel shaft dug 28 feet down and through a tunnel to come up under Baby Jessica. But her leg, pinned above her head, held her firmly in place, and O’Donnell couldn’t budge her. Inch by inch, with some patience and K-Y Jelly slathered over the well walls, O’Donnell pulled Jessica free. He handed her to a fireman who wrapped her onto a board and lifted her safely back up into the world, 58 hours after her fall.
Rodney Wunsch, then a cub reporter for KMID-TV in Midland, Texas, was at a city council meeting when he got word of the accident.
“I was about to fall asleep,” Wunsch tells Snakkle in an exclusive interview, “when I got a pager and was told there is a child trapped in a well.”
Wunsch arrived to find that his cameraman, already on-site, had run a microphone down the shaft. “We heard her crying and moaning, so we knew she was alive,” recalls Wunsch, who says he had never before covered a life-and-death rescue.
When Baby Jessica emerged from underground, Wunsch, live on the air, said he tried hard not to cry. “I am 21 years old and don’t even know about being ‘professional.’ My voice is cracking. It’s a glorious thing. It’s like a child being born.”
Scott Shaw, a 24-year-old photographer for the regional newspaper The Odessa American, had been on-site for over 21 hours with nothing to drink and only a bag of M&Ms to eat when the rescue came.
“I was one of the youngest, newest, and least experienced people there,” Shaw tells Snakkle in an exclusive interview. “It was a little intimidating.” But it gave him time to plan his shot, which he framed wide to include the baby with the emergency workers.
It wasn’t until he saw his images in the darkroom that Shaw realized what he had. In one photo, which would win the Pulitzer Prize for spot news photography, he captured the split second when all the rescuers gazed at Baby Jessica. “It was the weirdest thing how it all came together in that moment,” recalls Shaw.
Scott Shaw has been a staff photographer at The Plain Dealer in Cleveland since 1990. If photographs, like mirrors, help us to see ourselves, Shaw believes his photo of people bonding over the rescue of a helpless toddler showed him the good in humanity.
Rodney Wunsch gave up news reporting and now lives in Los Angeles, working as a technician for Access Hollywood. Of his Baby Jessica experience, he tells Snakkle: “A great thing happened that day. People worked together and did not give up…. It’s awesome. Life is beautiful and terrible all in one breath.”
Rescuer Robert O’Donnell, the father of two sons, committed suicide in 1995 at the age of 37. Robert O’Donnell’s mother told The New York Times that rescuing Jessica “was the greatest moment of Robert’s life and it was the worst thing that ever happened to him.”
Jessica McClure and husband Daniel Morales are the parents of son Simon and daughter Sheyenne. On her 25th birthday in March, Jessica got access to the trust fund made up of contributions from thousands of well-wishers after her rescue, reportedly now valued at close to $800,000.