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Rescuers Inch Way to Girl, 1 1/2, Trapped in Well

October 16, 1987|J. MICHAEL KENNEDY | Times Staff Writer

MIDLAND, Tex. — Rescuers working deep underground pounded away with jackhammers Thursday, inching their way through solid rock toward an 18-month-old girl trapped in an abandoned well.

More than a day after slipping into the eight-inch-wide opening, little Jessica McClure could be heard sobbing and singing nursery rhymes from the bulge 22 feet down the shaft where she was imprisoned.

Rescuers drilled a 3-by-3-foot parallel shaft about 30 feet deep and five feet from the well in an effort to reach her. They hoped to tunnel toward her from below and pull her out, but were frustrated by rock decribed as harder than granite.

Not Certain of Distance

As dusk fell over this West Texas city, it was still uncertain exactly how far they were from reaching the blonde, blue-eyed toddler, who had slipped into the shaft about 10 a.m. Wednesday.

"The workers are beginning to feel anxiety as well as fatigue," said Sgt. Jeff Haile, a Midland police spokesman. "But they are working just as hard as they have been and they will continue until they drop."

The drama of the rescue efforts gripped this oil country community of 100,000 as hundreds of people who know how to handle a drilling rig and a jackhammer descended on this modest subdivision to offer their help. Restaurants sent food and drinks throughout the night and into Thursday. Mining experts flew in from as far away as Colorado. Oilfield safety companies pro vided the oxygen that was sent down the rescue shaft and the well.

"She's doing a good job down there," said Sgt. Andy Glasscock, who monitored the sounds over earphones from a microphone dangled in the shaft. "She's hanging on."

The little girl slept Wednesday night, warmed by blowers that sent heat into the old water well.

She seemed to be alert during the day Thursday, although she'd had no food or water for more than 24 hours.

At times, her parents called down the shaft to her.

"They're giving her words of encouragement, like 'We're going to get you out. I love you,' " police Cpl. Jim White said.

No Signs of Injuries

A camera lowered into the hole showed her sitting with her knees up. Doctors said there were no signs that she had been injured.

"She's crying, she's humming, she's singing," police spokesman Haile said.

But as the drilling progressed, White observed: "The closer they get, the more vibrations, the louder the noise. The poor little thing is scared. The closer we get, the more uncomfortable she is going to be but it's the only way we can go."

As relatives reconstructed the events of Wednesday, Jessica was in the backyard of her aunt's home, along with several other children who are cared for during the day by the child's mother, Reba, 17, and aunt, Jamie Moore.

At about 10 a.m., Jessica's mother went inside the house briefly. When she returned, the children were next to the abandoned well, which in the past had been covered by a rock, motioning that the little girl had fallen down the shaft.

The shaft at the surface is only eight inches in diameter--roughly the size of a two-pound coffee can--and, according to measurements taken later, Jessica fell 22 feet, apparently without being seriously hurt. The shaft widened below ground and Haile, the police spokesman, said that the child was in a spot roughly 12 to 14 inches in diameter.

'Mommy, Mommy'

One of the first things heard from the shaft was a cry of "mommy, mommy," which encouraged rescue workers as they began their long ordeal.

Margie Lunsford, a neighbor, said roots from nearby plants had grown through the well shaft about eight feet underground, breaking the toddler's fall.

"That really helped slow her down," she said.

Within two hours, a drilling rig known in the oil business as a "rathole" was in place beside the well, and workmen began drilling. A microphone was lowered to monitor the little girl and a camera commonly used to examine sewer pipes was also dropped down the shaft.

The images were unclear, and the camera soon stopped working, apparently damaged by the drilling vibrations.

The rescue efforts stalled on Thursday when rescuers had to revert to cumbersome jackhammers as they attempted to join the well with the rescue shaft and bring the child to safety.

They hit solid rock, and as the day wore on, reports coming up from below were that drillers were measuring their progress in inches per hour as they attempted to cut a hole to the well. The rescue shaft was dug deeper than where experts believed Jessica to be and they were drilling upward in an attempt to prevent a cave-in on her.

Haile said in the late afternoon that work seemed to be going faster after the rescuers switched from jackhammers to pneumatic drills, but progress was still painfully slow.

Parents in Seclusion

While workers drilled for the well, the toddler continued to alternately cry and sing and occasionally sleep. Her father, Chip, 18, a house painter, and mother remained in seclusion inside the house, except for occasional visits to the well.

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