Jan. 20--One of the last Midland firefighters who was involved in the rescue of "Baby Jessica" retired Wednesday, completing more than 29 years of service with the Midland Fire Department.
Steve Forbes' face is etched into Midland's history. Wearing a crooked smile and a red baseball cap, he was photographed holding 18-month-old Jessica McClure on Oct. 16, 1987, while first responders, volunteers and onlookers cheered following the 58-hour effort to rescue the toddler, who had fallen in a water well at a home in southwest Midland.
When the Reporter-Telegram spoke with Forbes, 50, in 2012 regarding the rescue's 25th anniversary, he remembers being off-duty when he noticed the activity in his neighborhood and stopped by to check on the rescue's progress.
"I was pretty much drawn into the situation," Forbes said in 2012. "Nobody told me to leave, so I stayed."
He went down into the well to do some jackhammering work and accompanied paramedic Robert O'Donnell to save Jessica. The final time, when O'Donnell was able to get her out, Forbes was the one holding the toddler as they came up.
"The real work was done by others. I just happened to be in the spotlight when we showed up at the top," he said in a previous report.
In retrospect, the rescue of Jessica taught the department a valuable lesson in how to take care of co-workers during times of stress, said Forbes, who wouldn't elaborate.
MFD Assistant Chief Chip Balzer said the department received a lot of media attention in the rescue's aftermath, but more importantly, it strengthened the bond between MFD and Midland residents.
MFD Assistant Chief Fritz Niggeler recalled going with Forbes to a conference in San Diego. A young firefighter approached Niggeler after the man heard he was from Midland. He told Niggeler that Jessica's rescue inspired him to become a firefighter.
Forbes did not talk a lot about the rescue, said Niggeler, who remembered fielding phone calls from national news organizations wanting to interview Forbes. He said Forbes once received a guest invitation to appear on the "Dr. Phil" show, but told the caller "I've got a private doctor and I'm perfectly happy with that."
Legacy beyond the rescue
During Forbes' retirement reception on Wednesday, MFD Chief Robert Isbell described Forbes as an "icon in the department."
It wasn't just for his involvement in Jessica's rescue. Isbell said Forbes' dedication and high standards for training have shaped MFD employees into better firefighters.
"He has not wavered at all in his commitment to our excellence," he said before the reception.
Isbell said that not long after he became chief he wanted to increase the required number of hours for training. But Forbes fought him on that, saying the training procedures and requirements should remain unchanged. Isbell said Forbes earned his respect for sticking with what he believed to be right.
During the reception, several of Forbes' colleagues shared their experiences with him.
Assistant Fire Chief Michael Cota and Battalion Chief Drew Peters said they were positively impacted by working with the training chief. Battalion Chief Brian McGary worked directly with Forbes for about eight years, and said Forbes was a mentor who made him a better firefighter and a better man.
Capt. Mike Winford said Forbes was always trying to improve the department, and said jokingly that he was glad he made captain before Forbes -- whose high standards were known throughout the department -- started administereding the test.
Many attributed their success at MFD to Forbes, but he would not take credit for it.
"They could have worked under Bozo the Clown and still (succeeded)," Forbes said.
He will trade in his uniform shoes for steel-toed boots in a new position at a private industry's safety division.