Kathy Fiscus

Reporter Stan Chambers covers the
Kathy Fiscus rescue for KTLA

 If you are old enough to remember Kathy Fiscus, you are even older than Fulano. All the news of the 33 Chilean miners who were rescued this week, reminded me of a more tragic story from my childhood.

In the spring of 1949, there were perhaps 20,000 TV sets in Los Angeles. Prime-time viewers saw a lot of boxing, wrestling and roller derby, and dramas were staged like plays. Children’s programming began at 7, so “Kukla, Fran & Ollie” was still a couple of hours away on a late Friday afternoon, April 8, when 3-year-old Kathryn Anne Fiscus, a girl in a pink dress was racing across a vacant lot in San Marino and then vanished feet-first into an abandoned water well pipe. The attempted rescue, broadcast live on KTLA, was a landmark event in American television history.

On the afternoon of Friday, April 8, 1949, Kathy Fiscus was playing with her sister Barbara and cousin Gus in a field in San Marino when she fell down the 14-inch-wide shaft of an abandoned water well. Her father, David Fiscus, worked for the California Water & Telephone Co., which had drilled the well in 1903. He had recently testified before the state legislature for a proposed law that would require the cementing of all old wells. Within hours, a major rescue effort was underway with drills, derricks, bulldozers and trucks, three giant cranes floodlights. After digging down 100 feet, workers reached Kathy on Sunday night. After a doctor was lowered into the shaft an announcement was made to the more than 10,000 people who had gathered at the scene to watch the rescue: “Kathy is dead and apparently has been dead since she was last heard speaking.” It was determined that she died shortly after the fall, from a lack of oxygen.

The rescue attempt received nationwide attention in the United States as it was carried live on radio and on television by Los Angeles station KTLA. It is regarded as a watershed event in live TV coverage. Reporter Stan Chambers covered the story live. He was on the scene for 27-1/2 hours. This event prompted the sale of hundreds of TV sets in the Los Angeles area. His report has been recognized as the first live coverage of a breaking news story.

After this tragedy, “Kathy Fiscus Laws” were enacted across the country, requiring the capping and filling in of abandoned wells.