The dramatic rescue this week of the Thai soccer team trapped in a watery warren deep below the ground was perilous, gripping and impossible to avoid — a saga equal parts Jules Verne and Baby Jessica, with breathless reporters on the scene and endless news coverage of the joyous ending.
So what did Baby Jessica — who drew saturation coverage in 1987, when she fell down a well in Texas and remained wedged there for 58 and a half agonizing hours — think of this daring rescue mission halfway around the world?
“I didn’t know about it at all,” said Jessica McClure Morales, now 32, who learned of the ordeal in Thailand from a New York Times reporter on Tuesday. “We live in the country and we’re pretty unplugged.”
Ms. Morales’s rescue 31 years ago coincided with the dawn of round-the-clock cable television news, becoming at once a cultural touchstone and a template for the juggernaut coverage Americans have come to expect of certain events. But as she grew older, Ms. Morales largely retreated from the crush of media attention, choosing instead a quiet life away from the news.
And so, despite the similarities of the harrowing, complicated rescues, she missed the spectacle in the flooded Tham Luang Cave altogether.
“Our internet’s very spotty, and we’re not willing to pay for cable because it’s too expensive,” Ms. Morales said, speaking breezily by phone from rural Texas, as she took a break from a fencing job she was doing with her husband.
Though she was certainly glad to hear that the boys had been successfully rescued.
“It’s a miracle,” she said, likening the episode to another dramatic underground rescue, the extraction of 33 Chilean miners from a collapsed mine after 69 days.
Ms. Morales was 18 months old when she teetered into a narrow shaft in the backyard of a day care center operated by her aunt. The nation hung on the unfolding drama: The painstaking effort to drill another shaft, parallel to hers. The rhymes Jessica and her rescuers sang to each other through the well. The 65-foot-tall drilling rig sitting in a residential neighborhood, with concerned neighbors looking on from lawn chairs.
The story was everywhere, even in the decades before social media and push alerts. A study by the Pew Research Center found that 69 percent of Americans followed the story very closely — which meant, according to the researchers, that it attracted less attention than the Challenger explosion, but more than the Chernobyl disaster or the end of the Gulf War.
As President Ronald Reagan put it at the time: “Everybody in America became godfathers and godmothers of baby Jessica while this was going on.”
The public is more likely to connect with a disaster when it can relate to the victims.
Jeff Niederdeppe, an associate professor of communication at Cornell, said the cave rescue in Thailand drew much more attention than the floods that have killed more than a hundred people in Japan in recent days.
“The Thai cave case has every possible element of a maximally compelling story,” Professor Niederdeppe said. “You’ve got victims who are children. You’ve got heroes — Navy SEALs who are here to explore, saving the day.”
Plus, he suggested, the slow pace of a rescue can be almost addictive.
“You also have this slow, daily cliffhanger element to the story,” Professor Niederdeppe said.
Ms. Morales, of course, doesn’t remember anything about her own fall and rescue.
“I was only 18 months old, and I was stuck in a pipe that was only eight inches around,” she said. “Nobody thought I would live for three days without water.”
Ms. Morales said she knows the rescue has shaped her life, but it is hard to put her finger on exactly how. “It didn’t affect me the way it affected other people,” she said. “I lived it, but I didn’t watch it.”
She has remained in touch with the family of Steve Forbes, the paramedic who was famously photographed carrying her out of the well. And her family is friends with that of Robert O’Donnell, the paramedic who freed her from the well. He committed suicide in 1995.
Ms. Morales is a mother of two — one was celebrating his 12th birthday on Wednesday — and she was planning a family trip to the zoo and to a military museum this weekend.
She is so unplugged, she said, her friends sometimes joke about sending their children to her to keep them off their devices. Her husband remembers his mother watching Baby Jessica’s rescue on television and urging her friends to hold their children closer.
“I hope that’s how the people feel when they listen to and read about the Thailand boys. I hope they hold their kids a little tighter and I hope they hold them a little longer,” Ms. Morales said. “Things can change and happen on a dime.”
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