Jessica Makes It to Safety--After 58 1/2 Hours

Times Staff Writer

As hundreds of bone-weary rescuers and onlookers cheered in jubilation, 18-month-old Jessica McClure was pulled to safety Friday night, 58 1/2 hours after she fell into an abandoned well.

The toddler, whose plight rallied this oil town and brought on a massive rescue effort that stretched over three days, was brought to the surface at 5:55 p.m. PDT by crane operators who delicately raised her from below ground. Workers were riveted to their duties as they peered into a rescue shaft, gripping cables and ropes as they watched the toddler being raised to the surface.

Rushed to Hospital

Then, as cheers erupted, a rescue worker carrying Jessica, looking weary and dirt-covered but conscious, appeared. The baby's head was swathed in gauze that apparently had steadied her against a backboard, and her eyes were blinking. Her right arm also was secured with her hand against her face, but her left arm moved freely as she was carried by a paramedic to a waiting ambulance, where her parents waited. She was then rushed to Midland Memorial Hospital for examination.

Dr. Carolyn Rhode, a Midland physician who delivered Jessica, said she was in serious condition and suffered no broken bones. However, Rhode said that Jessica could have circulation problems with her right leg, which was wedged alongside her body in the narrow crevice so that her foot was next to her head.

Amputation Possible

"There is a danger that she could lose the (right) foot," Rhode said. "It remains a possibility."

Rhode also said that Jessica will suffer emotional trauma as a result of her ordeal.

The child weighed 21 pounds six weeks ago but had dropped to 17 1/2 pounds and was 10% to 15% dehydrated, Rhode said.

Throughout Midland and nearby Odessa, motorists sounded their horns in celebration of the young girl's rescue from 22 feet below ground.

For much of Friday, it appeared that rescue workers were on the verge of reaching the little girl. Battling rock harder than granite, they hammered their way from a rescue tunnel into the abandoned well early Friday morning. But the opening to the well was small and workers drilled and chipped away for another 15 hours to widen the pathway to the tiny chamber where she was trapped.

As dusk fell on the digging site, where hundreds of volunteers were both dirty and exhausted from the days of tortuous work, a sense of expectation mounted that the toddler would be brought to the surface at any minute.

That had been the hope since Jessica fell into the abandoned well 9:30 a.m. Wednesday, as she was playing with two other children in the backyard of the modest frame home, in the care of her mother, Reba.

Time and again, rescue officials speculated that it would be only a short time before the young girl would be brought to the surface from a shaft that workers had dug parallel to the old water well. It was only a matter of finishing the final link from the rescue shaft to the well and pulling out Jessica.

But each time, the rock layer surrounding the well defeated optimistic predictions.

Rescuers using pneumatic drills worked from several feet below the spot where Jessica was trapped. After their initial breakthrough early Friday, they immediately drilled across the diameter of the well casing and lodged the bit on the other side. Officials said it was an attempt to break Jessica's fall in the event that the rubble and leaves supporting the girl collapsed.

Saw Her Leg Through Hole

Using a mirror, rescuers peering through an enlarged hole at first caught glimpses of one of the girl's legs. After the hole to the casing was widened, rescuers inflated two industrial-type balloons in the casing so that Jessica could not sink any farther.

Finally, at mid-morning, paramedics reached the toddler, giving rise to hope that she would be immediately brought to the surface. It was not to be, though, as they discovered that only one leg was through the debris and leaves that had piled up in the well over the years. The other leg was pressed against her body and there was no way to move her. She was stuck.

"We still don't have enough room to get her out," said Police Chief Richard Czech. "So we're going to do some more digging."

As the hours went by, concern continued to mount that the days without food or water would present as much danger as being trapped in the well. But Czech said doctors on the scene had determined that she seemed fit. He said doctors were concerned that giving the baby food and drink might be detrimental if there were internal injuries and surgery was required immediately after she was brought to the surface. There also was concern that she might choke on food or liquid and that there would be no way to help her.

Grows Irritable

Sgt. Andy Glasscock, who shared the duty of monitoring Jessica's sounds using a microphone lowered into the well shaft, said the toddler was growing irritable. He said he thought she was especially irritated at him.

"I made her mad," said the burly policeman, who was covered with dust. "I've been telling her for the last 20 hours that we were coming down to get her out. I don't think she believes me."

The child, who had been heard at times singing nursery rhymes on Thursday, complained Friday that the drilling noise was too loud.

When the rescuers decided they had to dig more to give them more underground maneuverability, they decided to use a new kind of drill shipped in from Houston that used water pressure to cut through the rock. Called a "water knife," it apparently cut hours of digging time. A local businessman, Bill Jones, said he had heard of the drill and suggested it to officials.

"One telephone call and here we are," he said.

Throughout the day, Jessica's mother, Reba, 17, and father, Chip, 18, made periodic vigils to the digging site from the house, where Reba's sister lives. But as darkness began to fall, both parents moved close by the rescue site and watched intently.

Mother Smiles Nervously

At times, Reba McClure, dressed in a black windbreaker against the evening chill, would smile nervously. But most of her time was spent in rapt attention as the rescuers called for absolute silence as it appeared the final moments of the long drama were at hand.

Medical equipment, including what appeared to be forceps and lubricating gel, were brought to the rescue site. At 5:30 p.m., what has been described as a "paramedic board"--used to transport the disabled--was lowered down the rescue shaft.

Then the ropes and cables began to move, and within minutes the baby was safe and in the arms of a paramedic.

During the day, as the hours dragged on, concern mounted that the prolonged rescue efforts diminished the child's chance of survival. As workers continued to drill, one who offered to help was Ron Short, a muscular man who was born with no collarbone and could squeeze his shoulders until they touched. He arrived at the rescue site and offered to go down the shaft, saying he might have a chance to slip into the well shaft and maneuver the baby out of her cramped prison.

His offer of help was accepted, although never used.

"Hey, if we can use him, we will use him," said police spokesman Jeff Haile.

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