On October 5, 1987
, the utterly unremarkable young mother Reba McClure brought her utterly unremarkable 18-month-old daughter Jessica
along on a visit to her sister's house in Midland, Texas
. As Reba took a phone call, Jessica, playing in the back yard, fell into an open, abandoned well
, the mouth of which was only 8 inches in diameter. After falling about 22 feet, she became lodged in the well with her foot above her head. All in all a lucky position, as the bottom of the well yet contained some water which in all probability would have drowned her.
Her mother called 911, and soon both official and volunteer rescuers had arrived on the scene. After some speculation on how best to extract young Jessica before she fell further or died of hunger, thirst, or exposure, it was settled to dig another shaft parallel to the well, and create a tunnel between the two to extract the young girl. By the time this had been accomplished, 58 hours later, after constant digging, first with power and then hand tools, the site was swarming with well-wishers, volunteers, and most importantly, reporters, and "Baby Jessica" had become one of the defining media events of the 1980s, up there with the explosion of the Space Shuttle Challenger and the fall of the Berlin Wall.
The fledgling CNN, at this point not yet the powerhouse that the Gulf War would make them into, first had camera crews on the scene and dedicated 24-hour live coverage to the event. As a result, for the first time in their history they drew more viewers than the major broadcast networks, who covered the subject in their regularly scheduled news broadcasts, with an occasional "special report" for good measure. The Pew Research Center later determined that Jessica's rescue was the second most watched television "news" coverage of all time, trailing the death of Princess Diana. This event must be considered one of the most important milestones in the development of cable (and broadcast news) in the '90s, and a precedent for the sensationalism and ridiculously exhaustive coverage given to later subjects like the O.J. Simpson trial.
However, as these things go, the flurry of initial media activity fell off soon after the resolution of the drama - how many people remember the eerily similar cases of Floyd Collins in 1926, where a spelunker trapped in a cave attracted a carnival-like atmosphere and yielded a story that would win the year's Pulitzer Prize for Reporting, or of Kathy Fiscus, a girl who fell down a well in 1949 and became one of the first televised real-life "media events"? When's the last time you've heard anyone mention the nine coal miners trapped underground in the Quecreek Mine in Pennsylvania, an event that occurred as recently as July of 2002? In the aftermath, several rescuers have since sought treatment for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, originating almost as much from the demands of national media attention as from the rescue itself. Robert O'Donnell, the paramedic who pulled Jessica out of the well, eventually proved unable to handle the stress, the newfound fame, or its swift departure, and took a shotgun to his head in 1995. Jessica herself lives today in relative, welcomed, and somewhat guarded obscurity, minus one toe and any memory of the event, but plus a few scars, what one must assume to be an amazing scrapbook, and a trust fund of over one million dollars, built from the donations that flowed in while she was trapped underground.