Troubled hero unable to save himself


Midland, Texas -- 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 Mr. 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 Mr. 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, Mr. 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 the search 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, Mr. 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."

The downward spiral that Mr. O'Donnell traveled is a cautionary tale, an anatomy of the pressures faced by all emergency workers, especially when their efforts capture the fancy of a market hungry for real-life heroes.

What seems clear, according to those close to Mr. 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.

For a few extraordinary days in October 1987, the nation's attention was riveted on the drama 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, CNN 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. Mr. 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.

Using K-Y jelly and the rubber-tipped leg of a photographer's tripod, Mr. O'Donnell gently prodded and pulled, tugging Jessica by her blue baby pants. It took him more than an hour, inching her down the lubricated hole, like an obstetrician delivering a child. Finally she was out, and in the hands of Steve Forbes, another Midland paramedic, who carried Jessica up to a chorus of cheers. For a while, Mr. O'Donnell stayed underground, too overcome to face the crowd.

Later, the phone began to ring, even before he had made it home to kiss his wife or hug his kids. Reporters lined up outside his door. Cameras were thrust in his face. They all wanted him to retell the rescue, to relive it, to regurgitate every last feeling and thought.

"It was just a feeding frenzy," said his brother, Ricky, a correctional officer in Fort Worth. "They were on him like a school of piranhas."

At every opportunity, Mr. O'Donnell insisted that he had played just a small role in what was unmistakably a team effort. But more than any other rescuer, he also was willing to accommodate the media's quest to personalize the story.

He did Oprah Winfrey's show, then went to Washington to judge a G.I. Joe heroes contest. He shook hands with George Bush, then the vice president. He was wined and dined by Hollywood powerbrokers. His mother-in-law made him a scrapbook, embroidering on the cover: "Our Hero."

"We were all on that merry-go-round for a while," said Midland Police Sgt. Andy Glasscock, who underwent counseling to deal with the pressures of both the rescue and media blitz. "But when we tried to get on with our lives, it was like Robert got stuck on auto-pilot."

With childlike anticipation, Mr. O'Donnell summoned the family to watch "Everybody's Baby," a 1989 TV movie that featured his acting debut. Of all Jessica's rescuers, he was the only one to land a spot in the film, a small, non-speaking role as a reporter.

"Here comes my part, here comes my part!" he kept announcing.

But it never came. Without his knowledge, he had been left on the cutting-room floor.

"I'll be damned," Mr. O'Donnell said, shrugging it off with a laugh.

Privately, however, he had been hurt. He confided to friends that he had hopes of breaking into the entertainment industry -- talk shows, acting, public relations -- anything that would keep his star aloft.

Many of Mr. O'Donnell's fellow firefighters resented that he had been singled out for so much attention in the first place.

His headaches were the breaking point. Even as a boy, as young as 8 or 9, he was afflicted by throbbing migraines. They came and went, maybe once a month.

Once the media's interest in the rescue began to wane, his headaches returned with a vengeance, knocking him on his back up to four times a week. He went to dozens of specialists, even volunteered for experimental remedies, but found no relief.

In the end, he became a walking medicine chest. He began toting a black bag full of painkillers -- some of which, his then-wife Robbie said, "could sedate a horse.

"It got to the point where he really couldn't get off the couch to do anything," she said, adding that she finally sought help from Al-Anon, a support group for the loved ones of alcoholics.

Not long after his divorce in 1991, Mr. O'Donnell overloaded on sedatives and passed out at the fire station. The department's top brass checked him into a drug rehabilitation center, where he stayed for 30 days. A few months later, after Mr. O'Donnell had returned to work, a commander detected a slur in his speech and ordered another drug test.

Mr. O'Donnell refused, quitting rather than submit to what he saw as a scheme to have him ousted. His 11-year career over, he tried to find a job with another department, but was convinced he had been blacklisted. Some days, he would pick up his scrapbook -- the one with "Our Hero" embroidered on the cover -- and fling it, cursing it like a spurned lover.

"This is what ruined my life," he would rant. "I never want to see it again."

What started as such a simple story -- an innocent victim, a clear problem, a single solution -- had become a tortured mess in Mr. O'Donnell's mind. Suicide, which seldom lends itself to logical interpretation, was his final, imponderable response.

He tried it once after losing his job, swallowing a fistful of pills before being raced to the hospital. He tried it again on Christmas Eve 1993, overdosing on painkillers the day before he was supposed to fly home from Huntsville, Texas, where he briefly worked as a paramedic.

When Mr. O'Donnell finally succeeded at his plan, it was by fooling his mother into thinking he had heard a rattlesnake outside their blistered ranch house near Stanton, a village about 20 miles from Midland. He asked her for the shotgun shells, which she kept hidden on account of the grandchildren. When she woke up in the middle of the night, the gun and her son were gone.

A week later, to the mournful notes of "Amazing Grace," Mr. O'Donnell's elder son, Casey, helped carry his father's coffin to the grave. His other son, Chance, who was getting ready to celebrate a birthday, wondered why his dad couldn't have waited at least until he turned 11.

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