Points of Reference

updated 11/02/1987 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 11/02/1987 AT 01:00 AM EST

Numbers are impersonal things. By themselves they mean nothing. But it's curious how vital and vivid they become in a crisis: how they quantify our fear, give us something to grasp, to turn over in the mind. It was a week of frightening numbers. An abandoned well only eight inches wide. How could it swallow a human being, even one as small as 21½-lb. Jessica McClure? Simultaneously, in the breast of the First Lady, a malignant lump seven millimeters across. How small is seven millimeters? "About the width of a pencil," the newspapers explained. Big enough, though, to threaten a life. Then a thundering crash on Wall Street, an arrogant, profit-mad era seeming to shatter like glass with a record one-day drop of 508 points in the Dow Jones industrial average—and in the Persian Gulf, the pounding of 1,000 rounds of gunfire from U.S. warships at two former Iranian oil rigs being used as military bases. Smoke that threatened fire.

We can't help but take life for granted. Who would have the temerity to proceed if we sensed every second that our cushion of safety could be as narrow as that pipe in a backyard in Midland, Texas, or as tiny as the lump in Nancy Reagan's breast? In the time it took Jessica's mother to answer the phone, leaving her daughter momentarily unattended, or for Mrs. Reagan to step up to the X-ray machine for a routine mammogram, even that cushion vanished.

When it did, time seemed to slow down. We kept the TV on, hunted for the all-news station on the car radio, got up early to buy the weekend papers. Who could turn away from a child entombed in a well, then miraculously brought back to the light—or renounce fellow feeling with Nancy Reagan in her hours of hope and dread?

Precious few defenses can be marshaled against the implacable inches and millimeters that measure our fate. One is the will to live, to carry on as if life were the same, to cling to everyday responsibilities and comforts. In that spirit, Mrs. Reagan, 66, met with a group of foster grandparents and held a state dinner in the days before her mastectomy. And up from that dark narrow pipe wafted the voice of 18-month-old Jessica, singing to herself her favorite nursery rhymes.

The bravery of the little girl and the First Lady, at opposite ends of life's span, gave us heart amid the week's other tremors. The happy outcome—no trace of cancer found elsewhere in Mrs. Reagan's body, Jessica returned to the arms of her parents—was a redemption each of us somehow shared. And then, as time speeded up once again, we could let go of the numbers and resume, taking life—perhaps a little less—for granted.

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 jack-hammer in front of you.

But I've never seen more dedicated people. We actually had to force some of the men to quit and leave because they were about to drop. One guy was lying on the ground throwing his guts out. Another dropped from exhaustion, and we had to carry him out. It was a sight to see.

When I finally broke through into the shaft under where the girl was, I reached in and felt her foot and leg. When I had done that and heard her start crying, from that point on every time we'd go down and work for a little while, we'd have to stop because all the men, including myself, were getting so upset at hearing that baby cry. It really slowed us down, because all the men, the chippers and drillers, would start bawling.

She'd been slipping on us. She was dehydrating, so I guess as she got smaller she slipped further down. The doctors told us it was just a matter of time before she slipped farther down. That had me worried. I drilled straight across the well about two feet under her and inserted a metal rod to stop her descent. Then I inserted an industrial-strength balloon into the well under her to protect her from the dust and noise.

Paul Wilhite, 34, building contractor, volunteer driller:

I've drilled a lot of granite. Granite will chip off. This stuff you had to pulverize to powder before it would let go. It would be as if someone gave you a hammer and chisel and told you to cut through a three-foot wall. The jack-hammers would bounce off the rock. It was like hitting a piece of steel.

A normal guy can run a jackhammer all day long with breaks of 10 or 15 minutes. The way we were doing it, horizontally, one guy was wasted in 30 minutes, and some of these guys were built like they could out-wrassle a horse. Nobody wanted to put a damper on anybody's drive, but it seemed hopeless down there. It was scary. It was like being in a grave. I hate to say that, because that was where Jessica was at. But you kind of had that feeling down there.

Every time I thought about that little girl—I remembered her from church—I could see her mischievous eyes peeking over the back of the church bench. What you had there at the site was a bunch of grown guys looking to get her out so they could all go home and cry.

David Lilly: I wouldn't let no one but me chip into the well near Jessica. See, I've got a little granddaughter 8 months old, Candace Lee, and the whole time we were fighting this I could see my granddaughter's face. I used a hydro drill, which puts out a spray of water under about 40,000 pounds of pressure. It was better for that last stretch because it couldn't hurt little Jessica. I broke out a cavity as wide as the well, 8 inches by 10 inches, and when I finally got that, I said to the paramedics, "It's up to you."

Robert O'Donnell, 30, paramedic: Me and Steve Forbes more or less volunteered ourselves because we both have children, and I've gotten kids unstuck from different situations before. At first some were saying, "Whichever driller gets there first, just grab her and pull her out." As a paramedic, I was saying, "No, that's wrong." We didn't know how she went into the well. If it was head first, she could have neck and spine damage, and any movement could have snapped the cord and we'd be bringing up a dead baby.

There must have been 10 or 12 false alarms, but finally, on Friday at about 1 p.m., they said they were ready for us. I wasn't scared, but I was real apprehensive—I was going 29 feet down inside a black hole. I was wearing a mining light and a harness connected to a cable, and they lowered me slowly. Mr. Lilly was already down there, and he told me I would have to wriggle toward the well on my back or stomach like a snake. It was so tight in the tunnel it was like taking a sleeping bag and wrapping it around you. I inched along, and when I looked up, I saw Jessica's left foot dangling. Her parents had told us her nickname was Juicy, and that's what I called her. I said, "Move your foot for me, Juicy," and she'd do it. She'd whine once in a while, but she wouldn't talk words. I wanted to see what kind of physical condition she was in. I took her left leg and pressed up on it, and she didn't act like she was in pain. The main thing to do was to find out her position: Was she lying down up there? Was she in some kind of opening? I couldn't pull her down. She wouldn't move at all. I decided not to try, because I was afraid I would break her back or neck.

I knew that we couldn't get her out the way she was. There was no way. We're down there 40, 45 minutes, and I'm trying to be calm, but all I know is there's a baby stuck in there and there's no way to get her out without hurting her. That's the hardest thing I ever did, leaving that baby in there, and if I think about it too much, I could probably cry right now.

When I got up to the surface I told Mr. Lilly I had to have more headroom and I had to be closer to the child. While the drillers began to widen the tunnel, some of the pediatricians questioned whether I should go back in or not. They thought I was too distraught. But around 6 o'clock, after several more false starts, we went down again. We had talked about what we'd have to do this time, because we were going on 50 hours and the pressure to get Jessica out had mounted to a high intensity. We had gotten to the point where if we had to get physical to pull her out, we were not going to worry about broken legs, broken arms, nothing—as long as we kept her back, neck and head intact. The rest could be fixed. Whatever broke, broke.

They had given me two or three more inches height-wise in the tunnel, but they didn't get me any closer to her. I had one rubber-tipped leg of a photographer's tripod with me, and when I pushed it up, she seemed to move a bit. I managed to push it up all around her, so I knew she was sitting straight up in the hole with her left leg hanging straight down. I figured out that her right leg wasn't caught in a crevice, it was straight up by her head. She was in a split.

I lined the walls of the shaft with K-Y jelly and started pulling. She didn't like it at all. She had blue baby pants with snaps, and I got my hands wrapped in them pretty good and just kept pulling. She kept yelling, screaming, crying. One time she cut loose a big "No!" I kept calling her Juicy and telling her to calm down, but every time I pulled she tensed up real hard. So I'd keep a snug grip, and just when she'd relax, I'd yank even harder. Over and over I did this. When my right arm got too tired to pull any more, I'd go with my left, then back to my right.

Finally I noticed I had moved her two inches, then three inches. Then I got her into the K-Y jelly, and she started moving even better. I could move her half an inch at a time. Steve slipped the backboard to me. I pulled again and she came down. She was facing me, both arms beside her head. I said, "You're out, Juicy." I didn't have to tell her to calm down, because she was totally calm already. She wasn't moving, nothing. She was just blinking her eyes, looking around, breathing real easy. Her right leg was still up by her head, and you could see that the circulation had been cut off. They say her foot is pinking up, but when I saw it in the tunnel it was black.

Steve Forbes, 24, paramedic: After she was strapped to the backboard, I put her up against me and stood up. They lowered the cable down, and we floated on up real slow. We were face-to-face, and those big ole eyes just stared at me and I just stared back. It was a lot like Jessica was physically being born again. She came out slow, then fast, and she had that same look on her face as a newborn. Like, "Hmm, so this is it." It felt like her hands were almost in a fetal position while she was in the well.

Robert O'Donnell: I'd worked on her for an hour and 20 minutes. I was totally exhausted—totally elated too. I said prayers while I was down there, I cussed, I tried it all. I've saved other people's lives before, but there'll never be nothing like this again.

B.J. Hall: What really was touching was when they got her out, the route we took to the hospital—I was behind the ambulance. The streets were lined with people, and they were all cheering and the church bells were all ringing. It was the greatest thing I've ever seen.

Andy Glasscock: After they brought her out, I cried for two hours. They had to take me home. My kids live in another town with my ex-wife. The first thing I did was call them and tell them I love them.

Steve Forbes: Last night I couldn't go to sleep. I kept thinking about the rescue, and what I felt was joy. The best way I can describe it is, when we came up and I heard everybody screaming, well, it was the same joy that I felt three other times in my life: When I got married and after the births of my children.

David Lilly: Afterward, I just barely made it to a motel. I was caked with mud and completely exhausted. I called my wife and said, "I can only talk a minute, but you wouldn't believe what I've been doing." She told me, "I know what you've been doing, because I've been watching you on TV." I said, "Noooo!" I had no idea. I told her, "I've got to take a bath and then die." But I couldn't sleep. It's funny. I slept maybe three hours that night. The rest of the time I paced the floor and smoked. I've never had such an experience.

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