How the rescue of 3-year-old Kathy Fiscus became one of TV’s first live news stories, as told in new book

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The rescue of Kathy Fiscus, who fell into a well in San Marino in 1949, was filmed live on television. That changed media in a big way, says author and history professor William Deverell. Image courtesy of Angel City Press.

In San Marino 72 years ago today, Kathy Fiscus was a 3 year old who fell so deep into an unused well that it took a miracle to get her out alive. It was a painstaking process that was one of the first known examples of live event coverage on TV. 

USC professor William Deverell authored a book about that day, that little girl and her family. It’s titled “Kathy Fiscus: A Tragedy that Transfixed the Nation.” 

He says near dusk on Friday, April 8, 1949, bystanders and Fiscus’ family felt terror when they realized how far she had fallen. 

After hearing Fiscus’ screams for help, Deverell says, several ideas were hatched to try and rescue her. “Do we send someone down the way she went down there? Do we send someone down there headfirst who can grab her and pull her to the top? Or do we think about ways in which we can bore into the earth alongside her well and punch across, cut a hole in her well, and drag her to safety?”

A feverish, constant rescue attempt spanned more than two days. Deverell says in the end, rescuers decided to dig holes into the earth next to her well. 

As the digging continued, a crowd watched on. The press and as many as 250 law enforcement personnel were present, including the LAPD, highway patrolmen, and county sheriffs. Vendors selling hot dogs, liquor, and ice cream worked the scene. 

Deverell says that because the rescue was filmed live on television, it changed media in a big way. “That’s the astonishing impact of this event on media [and] the world over. Television had not really gone outside the studio, except for sports. So the notion that you could do live breaking news remotely on-site was new.” 

Rescuers eventually broke through and found Kathy Fiscus, but she did not survive. 

Credits

Guest:

  • William Deverell - Author and professor of History, University of Southern California