|Birth: ||Aug. 27, 1957, USA|
|Death: ||Apr. 24, 1995|
In The Spring of 1995 at the age of 37.Robert O'Donnell Shot and killed himself. But was it fame? But the reason he did it, and the reason no one who knew him was surprised, that is where the fame comes in. Eight years earlier he had saved a little girl's life, as the whole world watched, and, for a while, he was the center not only of his small universe, but of the real, known universe, the new one that sees everything simultaneously on CNN. There was a parade, countless television appearances, a letter from the president, a handshake from the Vice President, a made-for-TV movie. But eventually, the cameras went away, the world's attention moved on and he was left alone -- a man so changed by fame that he no longer belonged in his world, but not changed enough that he could leave that world behind.
O'Donnell was not the only one. The little girl's parents moved her out of town, to a three-bedroom house that they never could have afforded before she was rescued, to hide from the world that embraced them so hard they couldn't breathe. Eventually, they were divorced. Others who helped to save the child -- O'Donnell was just the most visible of hundreds -- found themselves drinking, or in marriage counseling, or in legal tangles, all because of the fickle, seductive, burning spotlight.
"It was the greatest moment of Robert's life and it was the worst thing that ever happened to him," said his mother.
Most of all, it is a cautionary tale for a time when Capt. Scott O'Grady, plucked from enemy territory in Bosnia, leaves his hospital bed to appear live with Larry King, and an Oklahoma surgeon, after spending an hour amputating a woman's leg to free her from the rubble of a bombed Federal building, emerges to spend a week giving almost nonstop interviews. In the days before he died, Robert O'Donnell, like most of the rest of the country at the time, was tuned to the coverage of the Oklahoma City rescue effort on television. He had wanted to go to Oklahoma himself, to try to do something to help, maybe to be a hero again, but he didn't have enough money for the trip. He was quiet while he watched, his mother remembers, but, after several hours he said something she will never forget. Pointing to a wide shot of the rescue workers, he shook his head and said, "Those people are going to need a lot of help for a very long time."
EVEN IF YOU DON'T RECOGNIZE ROBERT O'Donnell's name, odds are you know what he did. He was the paramedic who snaked himself down a tomblike tunnel and freed 18-month-old Jessica McClure, who had got stuck 22 feet underground in an abandoned water well.
He was at work the morning of Oct. 14, 1987, when he first heard about the ongoing rescue, and since he was assigned to the other side of Midland, he had no reason to think it would have anything to do with him. His was an ordinary life at the time. He was 1 of about 50 Midland firefighters with paramedic training, a job he enjoyed but easily left at the end of the day. He was married to the blond, effervescent Robbie Martin, whom he fell for in high school, and together they had Casey, then 7 years old, and Chance, 3. On weekends he coached Casey's soccer team, and played for hours in the yard with both his boys. Once or twice a month he was blinded by a migraine, and he would spend the day in bed, with the shades drawn to block the light. He raced motorcycles. He favored Dr. Pepper and Copenhagen chewing tobacco. There was nothing about him that the world would be likely to notice.
By the morning of Oct. 15, Jessica was still trapped in the well, and Robert, who had just gone off duty, thought he could help. He drove to the rescue site on Tanner Street, through a neighborhood of tiny houses and tiny yards, a neighborhood where people lived because they could not afford other parts of town. He had to circle for a while before he found a place to park, because a small city had sprung up along the normally quiet streets. He then made his way by foot to 3309 Tanner, past the television satellite trucks, the telephone company installers adding extra lines, the contortionist from Dallas who hoped to squeeze himself down the well. Tucked in a corner of the nondescript backyard was a black metal pipe, three inches poking up from the ground and eight inches in diameter, small enough to all but wrap your hands around, and, incomprehensibly, big enough to swallow a little girl. Around that pipe were the people and equipment assigned to monitor and maintain Jessica: a hose delivering oxygen, another blowing heated air, a microphone from a local oil safety company. Andy Glasscock, a police officer and one of the first rescuers on the scene, spent most of the three days lying on his stomach and listening for sounds from that microphone, hearing Jessica sing nursery rhymes to herself, call for "Mama" and cry. Glasscock, craggy-faced with tobacco stains on his teeth and more than a little steel gray in his thick mustache, cried himself, as he thought of his own small children. "How does a kitten go?" he would call down into the darkness, and he held his breath until he heard her say, "Meow."
By the time O'Donnell arrived, volunteers also had dug a shaft parallel to the one that held Jessica, one barely wide enough to hold a grown man and a drill, and 29 feet deep. The next step was to create a cross-tunnel, but the five feet of rock separating the shaft from the well proved to be so hard that it rapidly dulled diamond-tipped drills. Even with improved machinery, progress came at the rate of an inch an hour. The drills and jackhammers bounced off the stone, as if hitting steel. Men were dragged out exhausted from the effort.
They weren't the only ones exhausted. Looking over the shoulders of the group monitoring Jessica, and the group trying to reach her, were the reporters. The ones who arrived earliest, mostly from local newspapers and television stations, were only a few feet away from the two holes, just on the other side of the weatherworn wooden fence. Those who came next quickly realized they needed ladders, and those who came later brought even higher ladders.
Once territory was staked with a ladder, it had to be protected. Leaving for the bathroom meant risking a prime spot, unless you found someone to guard your ladder while you were gone. For blocks around the site, neighbors filled every available coffeepot and left them on their front stoops for the reporters, along with boxes of doughnuts, sandwiches and cold drinks. Some let strangers with press passes use their showers, sleep on their couches, borrow their telephones. The ones who arrived near the end had no hope of actually fitting into the yard or seeing anything firsthand. They sat in nearby living rooms and watched events unfold on television, then called their editors with updates that were really unnecessary since their editors were also tuned to CNN.
Robert O'Donnell inched through the crowd in the backyard, found his chief and offered his assistance. He did not leave that yard again until 8 o'clock the following night, and, when he did, he left a part of himself behind.
"I think if he could have, if he had it to do over again," his brother Ricky would say, after Robert's funeral, "he would have stayed home and let somebody else help that kid."
But it wasn't somebody else. It was Robert O'Donnell. At noon on the third day, the drillers stopped, the reporters clung to their ladders and everybody watched as O'Donnell, with a mining light strapped to his head, was lowered by a cable harness down the shaft. He was chosen because he was tall and thin -- 6 feet, 145 pounds. He didn't mention he was also claustrophobic. He lay down on his back and wriggled head first through the cross-tunnel, with his arms out in front of him. The air was wet and sticky, and within moments he was bathed in sweat. It was like trying to slither through a tightly wrapped sleeping bag, he would tell reporters later.
He inched to the end of the tunnel, until he could look up at the shaft that held Jessica. Only the first few feet were lined with the pipe that protruded up into the yard; the rest was raw rock wall. One of Jessica's feet was dangling down toward Robert, but the other was out of his sight, wedged near her head, so she was almost in a split. "Juicy, I'm here to help you," he said, using the nickname her parents had told him to use. He asked her to move her leg and she did. Satisfied that she probably had no overwhelming spinal injuries, he started to tug on her foot, but she didn't budge. She was wedged in too tight, and he did not have enough room to maneuver. He cursed. He prayed. He became resigned to the fact that he would have to leave so that the diggers could widen the tunnel. He promised her he would come back.
He almost wasn't allowed to make a second try. Doctors on the scene worried that he was "too distraught," but he insisted. When he reached the end of the tunnel again, he coated the walls near Jessica's dangling foot with K-Y lubricating jelly, and started pulling, moving her a fraction of an inch at a time. Finally, he gave one last pull and she was lying in the tunnel with him, nose to nose.
"You're out, Juicy," he said, then maneuvered her out of the tunnel and into the shaft, where Steve Forbes, another fire department paramedic, waited with a backboard used to immobilize accident victims who might have hidden injuries. O'Donnell had worked with Forbes countless times before, and considered the quiet, unassuming Forbes a friend, although, they would soon learn that, in many fundamental ways, they were very different.
Steve and Jessica were lifted from the shaft, up the 29 feet toward the waiting world. She reached the top, wrapped in gauze, and was immediately surrounded. A local photographer, standing in the basket of a cherry picker borrowed from the local telephone company, took the photograph, the one that won the Pulitzer Prize. All three networks interrupted their regular programming to cover the moment. "Live and direct from Midland, Texas," said Dan Rather. "Jessica McClure is up. She's alive. What a fighter."
O'Donnell stayed in the tunnel for a few moments, collecting himself. "I was totally exhausted," he would say. "Totally elated, too. I've saved other people's lives before, but they'll never be anything like this again."
When he emerged, church bells were ringing all over Midland. The phone in his home was ringing, too. The first call was from a radio station in New York City, and, every time he finished an interview and put the receiver back in the cradle, it rang again. That night he developed a migraine; his wife, Robbie, pulled the telephone plug so he could sleep. When he woke up the next morning and plugged the phone back in, it began ringing immediately.
Resthaven Memorial Park
Created by: Shawn Arthur Wells
Record added: Oct 17, 2007
Find A Grave Memorial# 22272348