We knew her name soon enough: Jessica McClure, age 18 months, playing in a backyard near an abandoned Texas well when, somehow, she slipped through a tiny hole and fell to a cavity 22 feet below. On "The CBS Evening News," Dan Rather held up a piece of pipe like the kind through which the child had disappeared in order to show us just how narrow it was.
At a moment like this, when a little girl falls down a well, America becomes one big national neighborhood. With TV keeping one apprised of every new advance, and then every new setback, in the rescue mission, one began to feel as if Jessica were a child from just down the block. Or missing from her room right upstairs.
This was one of those strange, troubling, exhilarating occurrences that unites and equalizes everybody. No matter who you were or where you were, you waited for the news that the little girl was safe.
Lucky viewers who were watching prime time on Friday night (Oct. 16) saw Jessica come up, like Alice out of the rabbit hole, alive and well on live TV. All three networks interrupted programming. Of course they did. This was a little girl who had fallen down a well!
It was a time to be grateful not only for TV but for the old traditional three broadcast networks. HBO didn't interrupt its movie for Jessica's rescue. Showtime didn't cut in, either. If you were watching a canned cable channel at that moment, you were not plugged in. You weren't hearing the heartbeat.
There have been similar stories told nationally and instantaneously in the electronic age. In April of 1949, a three-year-old named Kathy Fiscus fell into an abandoned well near San Marino, Calif. For three days the nation was glued to its radio sets as details of rescue operations were broadcast live
from the scene.
This story was not to end happily. Kathy Fiscus died. All those people who waited and hoped were now joined in sorrow for a child they had never met, yet felt they knew. Woody Allen recreated the incident in his most recent film, the nostalgic "Radio Days," which celebrated radio's capacity to link and inspire its audience.
Allen thinks of television as a lowly, unworthy descendant of radio, but in fact the Kathy Fiscus incident was part of early TV history as well. KTLA in Los Angeles aired live reports on Kathy's fate for the small number of TV set owners in the L.A. area at the time.
Stan Chambers, the station's reporter at the scene, was interviewed about the traumatic ordeal for "KTLA at 40," a marvelous anniversary documentary seen earlier this year. It was "the first time," said Chambers, that a viewing audience could "literally live through an event" as it unfolded.
We take this ability for granted now. Or at least we do until something like the Jessica McClure story comes along. Sitting there before the set, hoping against hope, wishing the TV camera could get in even closer for a better picture, nobody worried about abuses of the press or invasions of privacy or any of those other big media issues.
Most of the coverage that followed this electrifying moment only tended to cheapen it. Footage of the girl's mother thanking people everywhere for the concern they had shown was moving, yes, but soon the politicians moved in with their calculated salutations and rhetoric, and who needs that.
It is likely the media will keep in touch with Jessica McClure for the rest of her life. In 20 years, there'll be feature stories as she enters
college or takes a husband or wins a Nobel Prize, and flashbacks to her big splash in 1987.
What we'll remember is the gladdening moment that climaxed the anguished vigil. For two days, she was our kid and we were her family, and Midland, Tex., was a world capital. All eyes were on it, and on her. We worry that television often appeals to the worst in us, but every now and then, it triumphantly speaks to the best.