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COLUMN ONE : A Hero’s Fame Leads to Tragedy : Helping to pull little Jessica McClure from a Texas well made firefighter Robert O’Donnell a star. But the limelight soon turned to darkness.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Slumped in front of the TV, Robert O’Donnell watched the images flash by like his own life on rapid rewind.

Weary firefighters. Wounded babies. A harrowing race against the clock. The scene happened to be Oklahoma City, but it was all too familiar, a traumatic reminder of the starring role O’Donnell once played in another rescue that touched the nation’s heart.

Seven years earlier, in what remains one of the top-rated news events in television history, the slender paramedic wriggled down an underground shaft, freeing tiny Jessica McClure after 58 fretful hours in a West Texas well. Overnight, he went from small-town fireman to American hero. The White House saluted him. Hollywood besieged him.

“I’ve saved other people’s lives before,” he told People magazine. “But there’ll never be nothing like this again.”

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For O’Donnell, there wasn’t. When the media’s restless eye moved on, his life appeared to freeze in time, family members and friends say, his identity forever cemented by the 15 minutes of fame that branded him as Baby Jessica’s rescuer.

Long before the footage of Oklahoma City brought it all back, O’Donnell had come to see the limelight as a curse, not a blessing--a blinding glare that undermined his marriage, crippled him with migraines and hastened his departure from the Midland Fire Department amid allegations of prescription-drug abuse.

“When those rescuers are through, they’re going to need lots of help,” he told his mother as they watched search crews hunt for survivors in the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building. “I don’t mean for a couple of days or weeks, but for years.”

On April 23, four days after the bombing, O’Donnell drove across the darkened prairie of his family’s ranch and stuck a shotgun to his head. He was 37 and the father of two boys, ages 10 and 14. “I’m sorry to check out this way,” he scrawled on a scrap of paper found in his pickup truck. “But life sucks.”

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It may be that O’Donnell’s death is nothing more than a sad postscript to an otherwise inspiring story, one still commemorated with the Midland Community Spirit Award, bestowed each year by the Chamber of Commerce to a U.S. city that rallies against hardship.

But the downward spiral that O’Donnell traveled is also a cautionary tale, an anatomy of the pressures faced by all emergency workers, especially when their efforts capture the fancy of a public hungry for real-life heroes.

What seems clear, according to those close to O’Donnell, is that he suffered from some form of post-traumatic stress disorder, usually associated with combat veterans but increasingly a concern in times of disaster.

Over the past decade, as calamities have turned into media spectacles and more has been learned about the psychic costs of providing aid under such scrutiny, debriefing teams have become a standard part of almost every major emergency mission. Search crews in Oklahoma City were braced for the sights and smells before they even entered the ravaged building. But nobody thought of counseling in the jubilation that followed Jessica’s rescue.

“There may have been a happy outcome, but all one needs is to perceive it as a highly traumatic event for it to become one,” said Jeffrey Mitchell, a paramedic-turned-psychologist who is considered a leading expert in emergency-related stress management.

His Maryland-based institute, the International Critical Incident Stress Foundation, has trained rescue workers in more than 300 communities, including Midland, where Mitchell helped local officials develop a crisis team a few months before O’Donnell committed suicide.

Although such an extreme reaction is rare, he said, the depression O’Donnell suffered is not.

“When you’re thrust into the position of being a hero, it’s very hard to return to what you used to be--just a regular guy, doing a regular job,” Mitchell said. “It’s almost like an alcoholic beverage, just wanting more and more as you come off that high. If this was the most important thing that ever happened in his life, what does he base his value on when it’s gone?”

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*

The stock market had just crashed. Missiles were falling on a U.S. tanker in the Persian Gulf. But for a few extraordinary days in October, 1987, the nation’s attention was riveted on a far simpler drama--that of an 18-month-old girl pinned more than 20 feet down an old, dank well.

She cried for her mother, then tried to calm herself by singing about Winnie the Pooh. While crews frantically drilled a parallel shaft, Cable News Network scored one of its highest ratings for a single 15-minute period, attracting viewers in 3.1 million households.

The real story, however, would unfold underground, out of the spotlight, after two days of chipping through rock. O’Donnell, picked for his slim build and lanky arms, descended into the hole and squirmed--headfirst and on his back--through a narrow tunnel connecting him with the well. He looked up and saw Jessica’s leg.

“He told me it was just agonizing down there . . . claustrophobia, the physical pressure on your chest,” said actor Whip Hubley, who interviewed O’Donnell after being cast to play him in a 1989 movie of the week. “You really felt like you were in a grave.”

Using K-Y jelly and the rubber-tipped leg of a photographer’s tripod, O’Donnell gently prodded and pulled, tugging Jessica by her blue baby pants. It took him more than an hour, inching her down the lubricated hole, like an obstetrician delivering a child. Finally she was out, and in the hands of Steve Forbes, another Midland paramedic, who carried Jessica up to a chorus of cheers.

For awhile, O’Donnell stayed underground, too overcome to face the crowd.

Later, the phone began ringing, even before he had made it home to kiss his wife or hug his kids. Reporters lined up outside his door. Cameras were thrust in his face. They all wanted him to retell the rescue, to relive it, to regurgitate every last feeling and thought.

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“It was just a feeding frenzy,” said his brother, Ricky, a correctional officer in Ft. Worth. “They were on him like a school of piranhas.”

At every opportunity, O’Donnell insisted that he had played just a small role in what was unmistakably a team effort. But more than any other rescuer, he also was willing to accommodate the media’s quest to personalize the story.

His partner, Forbes, who was pictured with Jessica in a Pulitzer prize-winning photograph as they emerged from the hole, shied away from the fuss, and today refuses to discuss the episode. Jessica, now a healthy third-grader, also avoids the public eye. But O’Donnell, a country boy who lived his entire life on these dusty plains in Texas’ oil belt, reveled in the fame, jumping at every invitation to be Midland’s ambassador to the world.

He appeared on Oprah Winfrey’s show, then went to Washington to judge a GI Joe heroes contest. He jetted off to dozens of fire conventions, including one in Los Angeles, where officials greeted him with a helicopter tour. He shook hands with George Bush, then the vice president. He posed with pro wrestler Sgt. Slaughter. He was wined and dined by Hollywood powerbrokers. His mother-in-law made him a scrapbook, embroidering on the cover: “Our Hero.”

“We were all on that merry-go-round for a while,” said Midland Police Sgt. Andy Glasscock, whose wife insisted that he undergo counseling to deal with the pressures of both the rescue and media blitz. “But when we tried to get on with our lives, it was like Robert got stuck on autopilot. They put him up on that pedestal, and he never came back.”

*

With childlike anticipation, O’Donnell summoned the family to watch “Everybody’s Baby,” the TV movie that featured his acting debut. Of all of Jessica’s rescuers, he was the only one to land a spot in the film, a small, non-speaking role as a reporter.

“Here comes my part, here comes my part!” he kept announcing.

But it never came. Without his knowledge, he had been left on the cutting room floor.

“I’ll be damned,” O’Donnell said, shrugging it off with a laugh.

Privately, however, he had been hurt. He confided to friends that he had hopes of breaking into the entertainment industry--talk shows, acting, public relations--anything that would keep his star aloft. He called back People magazine, wondering if anyone would be interested in helping him publish an autobiography.

“He had all these great expectations of becoming something more than just a regular firefighter, and when they didn’t materialize, it affected his ego,” said Jim McCoul, who worked with O’Donnell at the city’s south-side station. “Going back to normal life was a letdown.”

None of this, of course, endeared O’Donnell to his fellow firefighters, many of whom resented that he had been singled out for so much attention in the first place. The more charitable ones simply avoided him, weary of hearing him recount the rescue or boast of his subsequent travels.

Others went out of their way to demean him--"Robo-Donnell,” they would call him in mock admiration--ostracizing him for the very feat that had come to define his life. Every time he was invited out of town to receive another honor, the teasing grew worse: Supervisors insisted that he grovel for his own replacements whenever he missed a shift.

“Robert was on his own,” said Dave Felice, a former captain in the department, now a fire inspector in State College, Pa. “I feel like he was kind of hung out to dry.”

His headaches were the breaking point. Even as a boy, as young as 8 or 9, he was afflicted by throbbing migraines. They came and went, maybe once a month, a condition that his mother, Yvonne Poe, always suspected was a function of his perfectionist streak.

“My other kids didn’t care if they had a hole in their britches, but he always wanted his britches starched and ironed,” said Poe, recalling that young Robert took private art lessons while his two brothers bumped and bruised their way through local rodeos.

When they were small, their father ran off to Mexico, never really connecting again with them. But Robert, his mother said, grew into a responsible family man and dedicated firefighter, never revealing any clue of the instability that was to come.

Once the media’s interest in the rescue began to wane, his headaches returned with a vengeance, knocking him on his back almost every other day. He went to dozens of specialists, even volunteered for experimental remedies, but found no relief. His grandmother swathed his head with a washcloth dipped in whiskey and camphor. He took so much aspirin his stomach bled.

In the end, he became a walking medicine chest. Although his vices tended to run no stronger than Copenhagen snuff and a steady diet of Dr. Pepper, he began toting a black bag full of painkillers--some of which, his then-wife, Robbie, said, “could sedate a horse.”

“It got to the point where he really couldn’t get off the couch to do anything,” she said, adding that she finally sought help from Al-Anon, a support group for the loved ones of alcoholics. “He aged so much that people thought he was in his late 40s. I just knew I couldn’t live that way anymore.”

Not long after they divorced in 1991, O’Donnell overloaded on sedatives and passed out at the fire station. The department’s top brass, who have refused to discuss his problems publicly, checked him into a drug rehabilitation center, where he stayed for 30 days. A few months later, after O’Donnell had returned to work, a commander detected a slur in his speech and ordered another drug test.

O’Donnell refused, quitting rather than submitting to what he saw as a scheme to have him ousted. His 11-year career over, he tried to find a job with another department, but was convinced he had been blacklisted. Some days, he would pick up his scrapbook--the one with “Our Hero” embroidered on the cover--and fling it.

“This is what ruined my life,” he would rant. “I never want to see it again.”

*

What started as such a simple story--an innocent victim, a clear problem, a single solution--had become a tortured mess in O’Donnell’s mind. Suicide, which seldom lends itself to logical interpretation, was his final, imponderable response.

He tried it once after losing his job, swallowing a fistful of pills before being raced to the hospital. He tried it again on Christmas Eve, 1993, overdosing on painkillers the day before he was supposed to fly home from Huntsville, Tex., where he briefly worked as a paramedic.

“I almost put Robert in the category of some of the guys who came back from Vietnam,” said his brother, Ricky. “To tell you the truth, I think if he could have, if he had it to do all over again, he would have stayed home and let somebody else help that kid.”

When O’Donnell finally succeeded at his plan, it was by fooling his mother into thinking he had heard a rattlesnake outside their blistered ranch house near Stanton, a village about 20 miles from Midland. He asked her for the shotgun shells, which she kept hidden on account of the grandchildren. When she woke up in the middle of the night, the gun and her son were gone.

A week later, to the mournful sounds of “Amazing Grace,” O’Donnell’s elder son, Casey, helped carry his father’s coffin to the grave. His other son, Chance, whose birthday is Saturday, wondered why his dad couldn’t have waited at least until he turned 11.

O’Donnell’s mother, who works with his stepfather tending about 400 head of cattle, opened a trust fund for the boys at the First National Bank of Stanton. But so far it contains only $815, she notes with irony, while there is reportedly more than $1 million in the account set aside for Jessica, whose parents, now divorced, attended the funeral.

“Robert’s children were the most important thing in his life,” Poe said. “That’s what I can’t understand.”

A weathered woman with a shock of platinum hair, she wiped the tears welling in her tired eyes. In front of her, on the coffee table, lay the scrapbook that symbolized her son’s glory and despair, its spine wobbly and its pages torn from being hurled across the room.

Katz was recently on assignment in Midland, Tex.


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