IT WAS TO BE THE MOST MEMORABLE day in Robert O'Donnell's life. A paramedic with the Midland, Texas, fire department, he was off-duty one October morning in 1987 when Jessica McClure, not yet 2 years old, tumbled down an old, unused well in her aunt's backyard. When he arrived the next morning, brawny oilfield workers were burrowing toward the underground pocket where the little girl's life hung in precarious balance. O'Donnell, tall and wiry, volunteered to squirm down the dangerously narrow rescue shaft, even though he was claustrophobic. There he grabbed Jessica by her baby-blue pant leg—her first human embrace in two days—and edged her, inch by inch, back to safety. "I've saved other people's lives before," O'Donnell told PEOPLE just after the rescue, "but there'll never be nothing like this again."

Last month, Robert O'Donnell, 37, added his own tragic postscript to the Baby Jessica story. Hours after his mother, Yvonne Poe, noticed a shotgun missing from her ranch near Stanton, some 20 miles northeast of Midland, police found O'Donnell slumped in his new Ford pickup, an apparent suicide. Friends say he never really recovered from the quicksilver fame he won as one of Jessica's rescuers, fame which vanished not long after the network news crews left town. Four years after the rescue, his marriage ended in divorce. A year later his career at the Midland Fire Department collapsed amid allegations of prescription-drug abuse. "Once the adrenalin [subsides], you go into a major depression," says police Sgt. Andy Glasscock, another of Jessica's rescuers. "Robert never came out of it. We saved a little girl, but we've all lost a friend."

O'Donnell was born and raised in Midland, the second of three sons born to rancher Roland O'Donnell Jr. and his bookkeeper wife, Yvonne. The couple divorced when Robert was 5 and, after his parents remarried, Robert divided his time between his father's ranch in Mexico and his mother's house in Midland. After high school he joined the Army but was soon discharged because of an old foot injury. He returned to Midland to attend local colleges and eventually earned certification as an emergency medical technician. A year before joining the Midland Fire Department in 1981 he married Robbie Martin. They had two sons: Casey Shane, now 14, and Chance Dillon, 10.

Then, on Oct. 14, 1987, Baby Jessica fell into a well and O'Donnell's life was changed forever. For a brief time he was a national hero. "Can you imagine how many times he was introduced as 'the guy who rescued Jessica McClure'?" says his older brother Ricky, 38, a corrections officer living in Fort Worth. Robert appeared on The Oprah Winfrey Show and flew to Washington, D.C., to judge a G.I. Joe heroes contest. Hollywood producers descended on the depressed West Texas oil town with cash offers for some, including O'Donnell, leaving other rescuers resentful. In the end, say locals, the big money never materialized and O'Donnell himself faced a moment of humiliation. He was supposed to have a small part as a newspaper reporter in a made-for-television movie about the rescue, but his scene was cut from the final print without his knowledge. "He had the whole family sitting around watching this on TV saying, 'Here comes my part! Here comes my part!' " says Ricky. "And it wasn't there."

After that, the blaze of publicity died as suddenly as it had flared. "For six months or a year everyone wanted a piece of him," says Ricky. "Then all of a sudden one day it seemed like everyone dropped him." According to Ricky, his brother asked the fire department for treatment of post-traumatic stress but never received any. In 1992 he refused to submit to a urinalysis and resigned from the department. (The fire chief won't discuss the circumstances of O'Donnell's departure.) After that, O'Donnell bounced from job to job and was working for an environmental services company in Lubbock at the time of his death. Both his children lived with their mother.

Last Friday, as a fiddler played "Amazing Grace" under cloudy skies, O'Donnell's son Casey helped carry his father to his grave at a Midland cemetery. About 30 uniformed firefighters stood at attention, yet for a man once known as a hero, the proceedings drew scant attention from local media. Among those not present was Jessica McClure, now 9, whose divorced parents do their utmost to keep the healthy third-grader—whose slight limp is the only outward sign of her ordeal—out of the public eye. Even so, both parents attended O'Donnell's funeral. Chip McClure, still thankful, talked about the day O'Donnell plucked his tiny daughter from certain death. "Robert forever became one of Jessica's rescuers," he says. "It changed his identity."

PATRICK ROGERS
MICHAEL HAEDERLE in Midland

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  • Michael Haederle.