You probably don’t know the name Robert O’Donnell, even though he was a central figure in a heroic episode that gripped this nation 32 years ago this month, when every single American was glued to their television sets watching the drama of “Baby Jessica” unfold.
Then 18-month-old Jessica McClure’s aunt ran a daycare center out of her home in Midland, Texas. On October 14, Jessica was playing with four other children in the backyard under the supervision of her mother, Cissy, who briefly went inside to answer a phone call, leaving the children momentarily unattended. Moments later she heard kids screaming, and rushed back out to discover that her daughter had disappeared: Baby Jessica had fallen into an eight-inch diameter well pipe and was trapped some 22-feet under the ground.
For the next 58 hours, America watched CNN as a desperate rescue attempt was undertaken. Baby Jessica cried for her mother, then tried to calm herself by singing about Winnie the Pooh.
Underground, out of the spotlight, after two days of digging through rock, firefighter Robert O’Donnell, picked for his slim build and long arms, descended into the new hole, then squirmed headfirst and on his back through the narrow new tunnel connecting him with the well.
He looked up and saw Jessica’s leg. It was claustrophobic, he would say later, adding he really felt like he was in a grave.
Using K-Y jelly and the rubber-tipped leg of a photographer’s tripod, O’Donnell gently prodded and pulled Jessica by her blue baby pants. It took him more than an hour, successfully inching her down the lubricated hole toward his hands.
Finally she was out, and America cheered.
Tears running down his face, overcome with emotion, instead of facing the crowd and the media O’Donnell decided to stay underground until things calmed down.
But things didn’t calm down. Before he could kiss his wife or hug his kids the phone started ringing at home. Reporters lined up outside, shoving microphones and cameras in his face. Everyone begged him to relive all of it, including every last feeling and thought. He always insisted that he had played just a single small role in what was unmistakably a team effort.
But that didn’t matter. He was the first to her, so he was most important.
He was on Oprah’s show. Went to Washington to judge a GI Joe heroes contest. Jetted off to dozens of fire conventions, including one in Los Angeles where officials greeted him with a helicopter tour. Posed with pro wrestler Sgt. Slaughter. Shook hands with Vice President George Bush.
His mother-in-law even made him a scrapbook, “Our Hero” embroidered on the cover
O’Donnell was intoxicated by all of the attention, especially when wined and dined by Hollywood power brokers, all looking for his angle to help them cash in on Jessica’s epic tale. When the first made-for-TV movie was aired, he was the only one of Jessica’s rescuers to land a role in it. He gathered all of his friends and family around the screen to see his first acting job, a small one as a reporter.
But it never came on. Without his knowledge he had been left on the cutting room floor.
He confided to friends his new hopes of breaking into the entertainment industry, even as part of talk shows, acting, public relations — anything to keep his suddenly bright star lit. But as interest in Baby Jessica’s story waned, it wasn’t happening. He even reached out to People magazine — who had interviewed him for a Jessica story — inquiring if anyone there might be interested in helping him publish an autobiography.
They never called back.
What people didn’t know about O’Donnell was he’d suffered a lifetime of depression and migraines. Diagnosed as obsessive compulsive, his life suddenly wasn’t going as he desired. Returning back to the ‘normal’ life of a firefighter now just wasn’t cutting it.
As his internal pressures grew, the headaches became an almost every other day thing. He went to dozens of specialists but found no relief. He took so much aspirin his stomach bled.
His vices never much more than Dr. Pepper’s and a dip of Copenhagen, he now carried a bag full of painkillers — some of which, his then-wife, Robbie, later said, “could’ve sedated a horse.”
Fast forward seven years after Baby Jessica’s rescue. A bomb exploded in Oklahoma City, and the nation watched on television as worn-out rescuers, including firefighters, tried to save tiny victims. O’Donnell sat in front of his TV, too, and it was all way too familiar.
“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.”
The ensuing weight of 168 people dying there — including 19 small kids — proved too much to carry. On April 23, four days after the bombing, O’Donnell drove out on his family’s ranch and killed himself. “I’m sorry to check out this way,” he wrote on a scrap of paper later found in his truck. “But life sucks.”
He was 37 and the father of two boys, ages 10 and 14.
Sometimes, even our heroes need to remember to save themselves.