How The Accidental Death of Kathy Fiscus Became a Landmark Event in US TV History

We all remember Baby Jessica: the toddler who fell into a well in 1987. Her 57-hour rescue mission was a national event, thoroughly televised by CNN. But did you know that decades before Jessica McClure, another little girl fell into a well? And it also made television history. But the sad story of Kathy Fiscus left no cause for celebration.

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Kathy Fiscus

Kathy Fiscus was born on August 21, 1945, in San Marino, California. She was just three years old when she went out playing with her sister Barbara and cousin Gus. The children were near the San Marino High School athletic field when Kathy fell down the narrow shaft of an abandoned water well. Ironically, Kathy’s father, David Fiscus, worked for the California Water and Telephone Company. He had recently testified before the state regarding legislation that would require the sealing up of old wells. Sadly for David and the rest of the Fiscus family, his pleas were not answered in time to save his daughter.

The scope of Kathy Fiscus’ rescue effort was colossal with “drills, derricks, bulldozers, and trucks from a dozen towns, three giant cranes, and 50 floodlights from Hollywood studios.” But it was futile. As her waning cries indicated, Fiscus died from a lack of oxygen sometime shortly after falling into the abandoned well. Her body was not reached by rescue workers until the night of April 10, 1949. Nearly two full days after the eighteen-month-old had tumbled down the well. But during that critical window of time, the story of Kathy Fiscus had gripped Southern California through its appearance on a relatively new medium: television.

Televised Coverage of the Tragedy

Los Angeles Times reporter Pat Morrison effectively described the phenomenon during an interview in 1999: “Newscasts then were at most 15 minutes long, little more than radio with a face.” But the industrious local news team at television station KTLA saw an opportunity in the tragedy. As hoards of volunteers and rescuers with high-tech equipment rushed to the scene on that fateful afternoon, another fleet joined the commotion: reporters and a live camera crew. As Morrison describes it: “Soon, other, unfamiliar equipment and other men showed up too: the lumbering trucks bearing cumbersome live TV apparatus and reporters from local stations KTTV and KTLA.”

What seems like an obvious addition to any developing scene today was a total anomaly in 1949. The prolonged entrapment of Kathy Fiscus turned into “an event that helped to convert television from toy to tool. Of the 50-hour effort to rescue the child, 27 hours and 30 minutes were televised live by KTLA.” From then on, newscasters were not glorified script-readers. They were now part of the coverage, eager to cover — or create — the next breaking news story. At the time of Kathy Fiscus’ drowning, there were only 20,000 TV sets in Los Angeles. This lead to locals clamoring to reach a screen, be it in their neighbor’s house, a store window, or even the crowded tavern. Hearing about the human drama unfolding live on TV inspired everyone to try and catch a glimpse.

Child Rescue Bid Fails

That fascination with live news became a lasting, and distinctly American, tradition. America now has multiple channels dedicated to the ever-present news cycle, and that presence of nonstop coverage, in turn, affects the direction of news itself. The polarization of ideologies on Fox News, CNN, and MSNBC can be attributed to the pressure of news-making in our society — and maybe even to the Kathy Fiscus’ story, which proved the profitability and sustainability of 24-hour news.

Of course, we must remember the human cost. Kathy Fiscus was a three-year-old girl who died, and whose story became about more than her own life. Kathy was buried at Glen Abbey Memorial Park in Bonita, California and her epitaph reads, “One Little Girl Who United the World for a Moment.” It’s true. The abandoned well which she fell down remains unmarked in the San Marino High School athletic field. And although it was too little, too late, a cap now covers the opening.

Read More: The Grave of Florence Irene Ford and The Mysterious Staircase Leading To Her Coffin

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