On April 8, 1949, two days before Palm Sunday, three-year-old Kathy Fiscus fell the equivalent of nine stories down a forgotten well—“a tube of rusted metal, just over a foot in diameter”—in her family’s field in San Marino, California. For more than 48 hours, Los Angeles television viewers followed the rescue efforts in real time. It was the first round-the-clock live TV news event in history. In Kathy Fiscus: A Tragedy That Transfixed the Nation, William Deverell, professor of history at the University of Southern California, tells the story of those two days while making a case that the coverage of Kathy’s accident forever changed TV news.
Deverell talked Kathy Fiscus with Alta Live.
“As a historian,” Deverell writes, “my job is to…bring the past into conversation with the present.” He methodically reconstructs the frantic hours after Kathy’s fall. His book examines the “concentric geometry” of the rescue attempt and the human, geological, and mechanical forces that converged in a field in Southern California. To contextualize, Deverell goes back to before the well was drilled. He traces the lines that brought Kathy, her mother, Alice, and her father, David, to the point of tragedy. Coincidences and tragedies abound. “Such are the patterns ever present in American history,” Deverell explains. “One strand leads to another, and then another, and those strands, seemingly inevitably, often twist together.”
That Deverell has his own fixation with the Fiscus story makes the book a meditation on human fascination as well as on California history. From the beginning, he draws us into his obsession. “Proximity surely has something to do with this story’s hold on me,” he acknowledges.
I am a historian of the American West and especially of California. This is fundamentally a California story, although it very quickly reverberated across the nation and the world. Its Californianess feels very close to me.
Before writing Kathy Fiscus, Deverell spent years pondering the tragedy and walking in the footsteps of the Fiscus family and the rescue team. The abandoned well (now destroyed and buried) lies underneath the track at San Marino High School, with a small plaque to mark it. Historical remnants and reminders of Kathy’s story dot the Southern California landscape, but the saga itself has been largely disregarded, superseded by more recent incidents such as the 1987 rescue of Midland, Texas, toddler Jessica McClure (“Baby Jessica”).
The events of Palm Sunday weekend unfold with suspense. Kathy’s fate is no secret—although she survived the fall, she died before she could be brought to safety—but Deverell re-creates the hope and anxiousness TV and radio audiences must have felt as they experienced the tragedy live, building suspense and interest as he explores the many facets of the story. Rescue plans range from the unsafe to the implausible:
Two rescue operations were in motion, each dangerous. One involved digging the big shaft alongside and just south of the well.… Another plan (or more accurately, a notion) focused on trying to get someone down the well to pull Kathy up and out the way she had gone in.
Deverell immerses himself in the details and the facts: the 14-inch-diameter well, the depth of the two rescue pits, and the “circus” of thousands of spectators and volunteers. His curiosity and wonder are infectious. This was a rescue operation that unfolded rapidly, relying on trial and error. “Exhaustion, anxiety, uncertainty, and confusion ran parallel to engineering skill and earth-moving experience at the site,” he observes.
Beyond re-creating the spectacle, Kathy Fiscus argues that the on-site coverage laid the groundwork for the 24-hour news cycle of the present day. Though the first reporters on the scene were from newspapers and radio—Los Angeles Times reporter Bill Johnston called it a story “much bigger than any of us”—it was crews from local television stations KTTV and KTLA who brought Fiscus into many homes. KTLA ran wall-to-wall coverage for 27 hours. The tragedy occurred at a time when the affordability of television consoles and advances in broadcast technology helped create the perfect conditions for a play-by-play account.
“The Kathy Fiscus story ushered in the era of modern television journalism,” Deverell writes. But his book is more than a recounting of a mass media turning point. Rather, Kathy Fiscus also seres as an origin story of sorts for works such as Dave Cullen’s Columbine, which, among other things, critiques the fallible and self-sustaining nature of breaking news coverage.
An “experiment and a brainstorm,” Deverell tells us, the Kathy Fiscus event “would turn out to be revolutionary.” By interweaving the personal, the historical, and the cultural, he brings together the harrowing and the astonishing through the lens of a little girl’s private and public death.•