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‘Baby Jessica’ And The Cave Rescue

President George H.W. Bush holds Jessica McClure
President George H.W. Bush holds Jessica McClure during the Midland Community Spirit Award Presentation in the Roosevelt Room at the White House, July 1989. Photo by Susan Biddle, courtesy the National Archives and Records Administration.

For several days in the autumn of 1987, I took a deeply personal interest in the fate of “Baby Jessica” McClure, a toddler who became trapped 22 feet below ground when she fell down a well in her grandmother’s backyard.

My wife and I did not know the family or any of the many rescuers who responded to the child’s distress. We lived in New York; the McClure drama was happening nearly 2,000 miles away in Midland, Texas. But we had our own baby Jessica – our daughter, who was just two months younger than 18-month-old Jessica McClure and shared her first name. I could not look at my own daughter without identifying with the family and those who were desperately trying to save their little girl. The entire story played out live on cable news, one of the earliest stories – even before the first Gulf War – that cemented its reputation as the go-to source for responsible on-the-spot news coverage.

The Baby Jessica story had a happy ending. Emergency responders retrieved the toddler from the well, 58 hours after confirming she was alive by sending a microphone into the well to record her voice. In the midst of a bleak news cycle that included conflict in the Middle East, the first lady’s struggles with cancer and indicators of economic uncertainty, the image of Jessica emerging alive from her ordeal in the arms of one of her rescuers briefly but powerfully united the nation.

These memories came flooding back during the past week as a global effort led by Thai Navy SEALs rescued a dozen pre-teen and teenage boys and their soccer coach. The group was trapped for more than two weeks in a flooded cave, and their prospects at one time seemed grim. Despite daunting odds, the rescue team successfully extracted all 12 boys and the 25-year-old coach. On its Facebook page, the Navy SEAL unit that led the rescue wrote, “We are not sure if this is a miracle, a science, or what,” seemingly as happily dazed as the rest of the world once the operation ended.

The team became trapped on June 23, when a downpour unexpectedly flooded the tunnels of the cave they had been exploring. It took nearly a week before British divers found the group, hungry but alive in a partly flooded chamber. After days of planning, the rescue operation delivered food and medicine, and eventually retrieved the boys four at a time, with the last rescue operation retrieving the coach as well. The boys, who range in age from 11 to 16, were taken to a hospital by helicopter. While they will be quarantined for a time to ensure they are not carrying unknown infections, early reports indicate that their spirits are generally good.

We don’t often encounter stories that remind us of how much we have in common as human beings, despite all the things that divide us. In contrast, today’s news outlets replay and amplify such divisions constantly in a drive for audience attention. But every now and then, an exception emerges. More than 100 rescuers from China, Britain, America and many other places swarmed to a remote corner of northern Thailand to save those young men, for no other reason than it was the right, decent and totally human thing to do. One Thai Navy SEAL lost his life in the effort; it went without saying that it was a sacrifice he, and all the others who participated in the near-impossible relief effort, were prepared to make.

The extraction itself will long be remembered as a masterpiece of planning and execution. All indications are that the post-rescue aftercare has been given equally serious thought. It is often observed that unlikely disasters usually come at the end of a long chain of mistakes and missteps, rather than a single point of failure. Similarly, a rescue as improbable as this one could only succeed if practically every link in a long chain of decisions was strong enough to support all that came afterwards. Drawing on all sorts of experiences from all over the world, planning, improvisation and execution all had to be nearly flawless to make this happen.

There have been many memorable rescues in the past that provide experiences on which future heroes could draw. Even failed rescue attempts have their lessons. In 1972, search teams from three nations abandoned rescue efforts too soon after a plane went down on an Andean glacier. The chartered flight originated in Uruguay and crashed en route to Chile. Rescue planes from both nations, plus aircraft from Argentina, swept the area for survivors, but after eight days they concluded that the harsh conditions left little hope of finding anyone still alive. Thirty-three passengers had survived the initial crash, and were horrified to discover through a small transistor radio that no one was looking for them any longer. In the 72 days following the crash, those who remained faced a dire shortage of food and an avalanche. A few of the stronger survivors were eventually able to make contact with local herdsmen, and through them, the authorities. In the end, only 16 of the original 45 passengers were saved.

In contrast, Antarctic explorer Ernest Shackleton navigated a rowboat across 750 miles of stormy southern ocean to arrange a rescue for his entire crew in 1916 after their ship was crushed by ice. It took four attempts, but Shackleton’s men were ultimately all saved. For a more recent example, consider the 33 miners who spent 69 days trapped in a Chilean copper mine in 2010. Their rescue took the efforts of three drilling teams, Chile’s government, NASA and various private corporations; private donations covered one-third of the $20 million rescue cost. Their rescue was truly a global effort.

The lesson in all of these cases: As long as there may be life, there is hope. And life can persist far beyond our everyday expectations. We see this replayed in a small scale after almost every major earthquake, when people whose odds for survival were almost nil are miraculously found alive many days later.

Many rescues are carried out by military units who train for all sorts of contingencies. Here in the United States, maritime rescues are the specialty of our Coast Guard. Those men and women routinely fly or sail into danger to extract others in nearly impossible conditions. Consider the SS Pendleton, a cargo tanker with a crew of 41, who faced “imminent death” when a storm off New England ripped their vessel apart in February 1952. Four members of the Coast Guard received the distress call and answered it on a small motorized lifeboat. Despite losing the windshield, the compass and (temporarily) the motor to the severe storm, the rescuers managed to save 32 members of the Pendleton’s crew.

Of course, in our cities, first responders do the same thing all the time on only a slightly smaller scale. Sometimes the scale is not smaller at all. The tragedy of 9/11 spawned countless stories of heroism involving professionals and amateurs alike.

Regional and geopolitics have thrust Israel into many rescue situations, famously including the 1976 raid on Entebbe airport in Uganda. While just as daring and admirable, such efforts rarely garner the universal support and admiration that will be accorded to the Thai cave rescuers. Other militaries have been called on for similar heroics, notably Germany’s, which rescued a Lufthansa plane and its passengers in 1977. And we shouldn’t forget the civilian diplomats from Canada who sheltered a group Americans who escaped the 1979 hostage crisis at our embassy in Tehran and – at great risk – spirited them out of the country. All are stories worth remembering as we vicariously enjoy the satisfaction of the rescue in Thailand.

I never met Baby Jessica and her family, but I never forgot them either. She has since grown up, married and become a mother herself. I am sure that someday we will hear about the accomplishments, great or small, of some of the young men who came out of that cave this week too.

Stories like this don’t come along every day. It is worth taking the time to appreciate them.

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