The story of the girl dubbed “Baby Jessica” and her harrowing 58 hours underground is one that has stuck in the public’s consciousness for over 30 years. Even with the saga’s happy ending, the details that led up to the accident still leave us baffled. No longer a baby, Jessica is finally ready to confront the aftermath of the accident that changed her life, her rescuers, and the lives of everyone who watched her story unfold.

All it took was a split second for Jessica McClure’s life to change forever. The 18-month-old was toddling around her aunt’s backyard on October 14, 1987, when the phone rang. Her mother turned to answer, and in that moment, Jessica fell.

The well she tripped into was 8 inches in diameter and 22 feet below the ground. She was lodged deep into the well casing with one leg stuck high above her head. She started to cry, a sound that would symbolize one of the defining moments of the 1980s.

All it took was word-of-mouth for the story to spread. Paramedics, police, and firefighters swarmed the backyard. It was a gripping story happening in real time — perfect for the 6 o’clock news.

Bettmann/Getty

As the hours dragged on, it was proving itself to be a much more difficult rescue than they originally thought. Their plan to drill a shaft parallel to the well and then a right angle across to Jessica hit a snag — literally.

Barbara Laing / Liaison Agency

The workers found that their tools weren’t strong enough to penetrate the hard rock around the well. Rescue teams had to get creative — and fast. They pumped oxygen down to Jessica as they brainstormed ideas…which is when someone floated the idea of waterjet cutting. 

A relatively new process at the time, waterjet cutting meant using a very high-pressured jet of water to cut through stone, metal, and granite. The problem was, the only thing between Jessica and the dangerous water jet was the stone. They were in for a nail-biting rescue…

KLH Industries

The only way they knew Jessica was still alive was by her singing. When she wasn’t crying, she was singing songs like “Winnie the Pooh,” along with the people watching on TV and in real life. Literally overnight, she became media sensation.

Barbara Laing / Liaison Agency

Hundreds of donations poured in from all over the country. Local news stations were inundated with calls from strangers about their own experiences with similar incidents. Meanwhile, the crowd on the ground grew, everyone hoping to have a hand in Baby Jessica’s rescue.

Barbara Laing / Liaison Agency

And though numerous people helped save Jessica’s life, it was one paramedic who went down the shaft himself: Robert O’Donnell. He inched his way through muck to get to Jessica, and the image of him holding her aloft, finally free, ended up winning a Pulitzer Prize.

Barbara Laing / Liaison Agency

The most harrowing 58 hours of Jessica’s life were over, but the aftermath of the ordeal had only just begun. Ronald Reagan’s statement that “everybody in America became godmothers and godfathers to Jessica” throughout the rescue only rang true for so long.

Barbara Laing / Liaison Agency

The fact is, all those who watched the rescue eventually left the scene to carry on with their own lives. The McClures had to deal with the fallout, and though there were high points, the low points proved to be the most painful.

Barbara Laing / Liaison Agency

The high points were great: The family’s fame brought them to Live with Regis and Kathie Lee, and a TV movie was made starring Patty Duke and Beau Bridges. The family met George H.W. Bush, and about $1 million in donations were put into a trust fund for Jessica.

Bettmann/Getty

The physical effects were another thing entirely. After surviving more than two days underground with her foot high above her head, Jessica was left with more than a few bruises. She lost a toe to gangrene and her entire foot had to be painfully reconstructed.

Bill Nation/Sygma via Getty Images

A large gash across her face left a scar that stretches from her hairline to the bridge of her nose. The only bright side seemed to be her age: Though the world could never truly forget Baby Jessica’s horrible ordeal, Jessica herself was too young to remember it at all.

Barbara Laing / Liaison Agency

It wasn’t until a few years later when, during an episode of Rescue 9-1-1, Jessica asked who the little girl trapped in the well was. At this point, Jessica’s parents — who were only 18 during Jessica’s accident — had endured a long, messy, and high-profile divorce.

Bill Nation/Sygma via Getty Images

Finding out about her past was like finally finding a missing puzzle piece for Jessica. Now 34 years old with kids of her own, Jessica is finally ready to share what happened when the cameras left her life for good.

PeopleTV

“The term ‘Baby Jessica’ is still an everyday thing,” she told People. She underwent 15 surgeries in the years following the accident, and though most of her surgeries were paid for by the generous donations from the public, the money didn’t last forever.

She started with $1.2 million in a trust fund, but the stock market crash of 2008 left Jessica with about $300,000. Still, the loss hasn’t affected Jessica as much as you may think. As she grew up, she saved the money for a few very special reasons.

PeopleTV

“When my husband and I first started dating he did not know who I was,” she explained to People. When she finally told him why people always stared at her, though, everything fell into place. “About a month into our relationship we were already engaged.”

Facebook

Two kids later, Jessica and her husband, Daniel Morales, were able to buy their first house with the money left over from the trust fund. The house is located just 2 miles from where Jessica’s life hung in the balance back in 1987…

PeopleTV

Jessica isn’t the only one whose life was changed by the ordeal. The paramedic who lifted her out of the well, Robert O’Donnell, battled post traumatic stress disorder from the incident, and he took his own life in 1995.

David Woo/Sygma via Getty Images

Nowadays, Jessica lives a relatively normal life with her family, even though she’ll never really shake the fame she gained all those years ago. And on the 30th anniversary of her rescue, Jessica visited the notorious well for the first time in years.

Barbara Laing / Liaison Agency

“Seeing the well for the first time…it was hard, but it wasn’t upsetting,” she told People. After all, Baby Jessica and grown-up Jessica are both survivors. “To me it’s a symbol that it could’ve taken my life, but it didn’t.”

Barbara Laing / Liaison Agency

One of the defining events of the ‘80s, Jessica McClure’s 58-hour ordeal was met with support from all over the country. It’s rare for events to make such a cultural impact, but the ones that do are truly unforgettable…much like the case of poor Kimberly Mays.

In early December 1978, Regina Twigg walked through the maternity ward of Hardee Memorial Hospital, pulling her IV behind her. The ward was empty, except for a lone woman holding a baby.

Instead of looking elated at her newborn daughter, the woman was on the verge of tears. Before she could ask her what was wrong, however, a nurse pulled Regina out of the room with just one sentence: “This is a very sad story.”

Decades after that strange moment in the maternity ward, she and that sad woman’s paths would cross yet again. Back in 1978, however, all Regina could do was count her blessings: This time, the sadness wasn’t about her.

ABC 20/20

Regina and Ernest Twigg already had five children, but when they’d entered the maternity ward that day, all they could think about was the sudden death of their daughter Vivia from a heart defect a few years before. 

ABC 20/20

But as it turned out, they had no reason to worry. Mere hours after her birth, Baby Arlena was thriving and breastfeeding like a champ. When Regina saw Arlena the next morning, however, it was like a light had been dimmed.

ABC 20/20

Arlena’s pink cheeks were blue, she had lost ounces of weight overnight, and she refused to breastfeed. All at once, Regina’s fears came rushing back, and this time, they were confirmed: Arlena had a heart defect. 

ABC 20/20

Arlena needed to be monitored for the rest of her life. “We didn’t know from one day to the next, ‘are we gonna lose her, too?’” Arlena’s oldest sister recalled. Regina was extremely protective of Arlena, who grew to be a weak but sweet kid.

ABC 20/20

Mere miles away, another family was grappling with their own newborn addition. Barbara and Bob Mays were brand new parents, but unlike Arlena, their daughter was a picture of health. The Mays practically belonged on a greeting card…

ABC 20/20

On the outside, anyway. The reality was that Kimberly’s birth was long and arduous, requiring an unexpected C-section that left both Barbara and Kimberly worse for wear. After a long recovery process, however, the family of three finally returned home…

ABC 20/20

That is, until Barbara was diagnosed with cancer. Two years later, Kimberly and Bob became a family of two. Bob remarried, and Kimberly seemed to live a privileged life, nothing like little Arlena from the other side of town. 

ABC 20/20

At just 9 years old, Arlena fell into a coma as a result of her disease and died soon after. The entire Twigg family was devastated…until the doctor brought them news that left them more shocked than ever before. 

ABC 20/20

Arlena’s blood work showed an unusual inconsistency: Her blood was type B. This normally wouldn’t be a cause for concern, but since both Regina and Ernest were type O, the chances of them having a type B child wasn’t just rare — it was impossible. 

The genetic tests confirmed it: Arlena, whom they’d raised as their own for almost a decade, was not their biological child. On top of the grief they felt over Arlena’s death was a seemingly unanswerable question: Where was their child? 

ABC 20/20

Little did they know, she was right under their noses. The Twiggs soon learned that only two baby girls had been in Hardee Hospital’s maternity ward the week of Arlena’s birth, and after hiring a detective, they learned their daughter’s name. 

It was Kimberly Mays. The Twiggs immediately reached out to Bob Mays, not to obtain custody of Kimberly but merely to see if she was, in fact, their biological daughter. But Bob refused to respond. 

ABC 20/20

“I wouldn’t care if they traced her heritage to Cabbage Patch USA,” Bob Mays once told reporters. “I’m her father, I always have been, and I always will be.” Ultimately, court ordered genetic tests revealed Bob’s greatest fear. 

ABC 20/20

Somehow, Kimberly and Arlena had been switched at birth, and the media frenzy that followed catapulted each family to national attention. Instead of demanding answers as to how the switch occurred, all anyone cared about were the warring families. 

The Twiggs vied for visitation rights, but Bob Mays was equally determined that they never set eyes on Kimberly. Regina was villainized for sticking her nose where it didn’t belong…even though Kimberly’s home life wasn’t what it seemed.

ABC 20/20

Despite what Kimberly told reporters, life with Bob wasn’t all fun and games. His ex-wife claimed that he would hit Kimberly, throw her around if she misbehaved, and verbally abuse her. The press even caught wind of the abuse…

But Bob’s side of the story was that Kimberly was his daughter no matter what, and that was enough for the press. Years later, it’s believed that Bob used the press to distract from the question on everyone’s minds: How did the switch happen?

ABC 20/20

Back then, Bob was in total control of the narrative. “Bob Mays did not want…[us to have] any connection to Kimberly,” Regina Twigg said. But Bob’s wishes weren’t to come true. A judge eventually granted the Twiggs visitation rights with Kimberly.

ABC 20/20

When Kimberly was 12, the entire Twigg family met their long-lost sister and daughter for the first time. According to home videos, Kimberly called Regina “mom” soon after meeting her…which was too close to comfort for Bob. 

ABC 20/20

“They were total strangers, and until we could get this under control…it was my opinion that we shouldn’t let them have any visitation at all,” Bob told the press in 1993. Kimberly had a choice to make: To fight Bob’s wishes, or to obey them?

ABC 20/20

By then, Kimberly had made her decision. Now 14, the girl who had appeared so happy with the Twiggs suddenly wanted nothing to do with them. She not only decided to stop visiting the Twiggs, but to cut all ties with them the most permanent way she knew how.

Kimberly petitioned a state judge for a legal “divorce” from the Twiggs. Kimberly, who once called Regina “mom” and was on tape laughing and bonding with her biological family, sat before a judge and claimed that she wanted nothing to do with the Twiggs.

ABC 20/20

“To get them out of my life I’ll do everything I can,” Kimberly told Barbara Walters in an exclusive 1993 interview. Her reasoning? To make everything — the press, the judgement, and the pressure coming from all sides — finally stop. 

ABC 20/20

During the court proceedings, the judge asked Kimberly what her greatest fear was in regard to the case. “Being taken away from my father,” she responded. Still, Regina Twigg was steadfast in her belief that Kimberly needed a connection with her biological family.

ABC 20/20

“If she ever wants to see us again…all she has to do is come to the door, because we’re here, and we love her,” Regina told Barbara Walters in an interview. Even then, Regina saw the writing on the courtroom wall.

ABC 20/20

Eventually, the judge declared Kimberly legally divorced from the Twiggs, and denied them any visitation rights. The divorce seemed to mark the end of the media frenzy surrounding Kimberly, and her life was expected to go back to normal…

Until months later, when Kimberly was found in the most unlikely of places: with the Twiggs. Kimberly admitted years later that it was Bob’s abusive ways that drove her to a YMCA shelter and then to the only other safe place she could think of.

ABC 20/20

“I stayed [with the Twiggs] a year and a half to two years almost,” Kimberly revealed. She depended on the family she had emancipated herself from for food and shelter, but it wasn’t always the paradise she hoped for. 

ABC 20/20

“I was never close with Regina,” Kimberly said of her experience living with the Twiggs. “But I do know she has a good heart.” Still, Kimberly can’t stop wondering about that fateful day in the hospital. “How did I get switched, and why?” she wonders years later.

ABC 20/20

Despite the years of media attention, no one had ever uncovered the true story behind the switch, and it seemed they never would…until someone spoke up from the most unexpected place.

ABC 20/20

When Patsy Webb came forward with her own story in 1993, it was from her deathbed. A former nurse’s aide at Hardee Hospital, she claimed she was there the day the babies were switched…and that none of it was an accident. 

ABC 20/20

Even before hearing Patsy’s story, Regina was convinced that Dr. Ernest Palmer, the longtime chief of Hardee Hospital, had ordered the staff to switch the babies’ ID bands. The reason why goes all the way back to Barbara and to her “sad story.” 

ABC 20/20

Regina speculated that Barbara, who was desperate for a baby, gave birth to a little girl with a heart defect. She was told that the baby wouldn’t survive into adulthood…at the same time Regina gave birth to a healthy baby girl.

ABC 20/20

Dr. Palmer, a close friend of Barbara’s family, allegedly switched the babies in order to spare the Mays further heartbreak. For years, the Twiggs were the only vocal supporters of this theory…until Patsy came along.

“Dr. Palmer asked me to switch the bands on the baby and mother,” Patsy revealed. She refused to do so, but she stayed silent because she didn’t want to be fired. When Patsy’s side of the story broke, the hospital shrugged her off. 

ABC 20/20

They claimed that Patsy was “eccentric,” an unreliable witness. But her family — and many reporters connected to the case — felt that she was telling the truth, which she did, her son claims, in order to clear her conscience before she died. 

ABC 20/20

“She never asked for money, she wasn’t seeking any type of notoriety, she didn’t want [that],” an attorney close to the case said. “She wanted to tell her story…and move on.” Patsy’s story could have turned the case in an entirely new direction… 

ABC 20/20

But because she only did one interview, Patsy’s story never gained much attention, and Kimberly’s own story ended the way it did: Divorce, reconciliation, and eventual estrangement from anyone she ever called family. Nowadays, Kimberly refuses to live in the past.

ABC 20/20

“I wish I could turn back the hands of time on a lot of things, [but] I can’t,” Kimberly admitted as an adult. No one knows what would have been different had the switch never occurred, but Kimberly finally knows her next step: “I have to move forward.” 

ABC 20/20