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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.

May 24, 1995|JESSE KATZ | TIMES STAFF WRITER

MIDLAND, Tex. — 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."

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."

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?"

*

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.

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