It was a story that put San Marino on the map, yet not for the most uplifting of reasons. On April 8, 1949–seventy years ago today–a three-year-old girl named Kathy Fiscus fell down an old abandoned well located on the current site of San Marino High School’s Titan Stadium. Unfortunately, despite Herculean efforts by many, Kathy could not be saved. The rescue attempt received nationwide attention in the United States, as KTTV and a team that included reporter Stan Chambers carried it live on radio and television. The rescue effort was covered on-scene for a 27-½ hour period. It is considered a watershed event in television and radio history, as it is recognized as the first live coverage of a breaking news story.
Most, if not all in the San Marino City Club audience this past January were familiar with the topic on which Professor Bill Deverell was speaking, but nevertheless, not a sound was made for the thirty minutes he addressed the tragic topic of Kathy Fiscus, a little girl who fell down a well in San Marino 70 years ago.
Deverell, a Professor of History at USC and director of the Huntington Library-USC Institute on California and the West, has conducted extensive research on the Fiscus tragedy and has written a book on the subject that will be released this fall. His gripping talk kicked off City Club’s calendar year and a large crowd that braved heavy rains that afternoon sat rapt as Deverell revealed more information that had been gleaned from his years of exploration. In honor of her all-too-brief time on this earth, The Tribune presents this tribute to Kathy Fiscus, who lost her life seventy years ago today.
“I have spoken about this event to a lot of crowds, but never to one who knows as much about this incident than this crowd,” Bill Deverell began.
Deverell introduced three happenings that triangulated to create his interest in the subject.
“In 1903, a well that is 14” in diameter—the size of a medium pizza, I always say—is bored into a field in San Marino,” he said. “On April 8, 1949, Alice Fiscus and her family go to Union Station to pick up her sister and children who are visiting. And ten years ago, I asked my daughter to cut out a 14” diameter piece of paper and set it in the middle of our living room floor.”
“I gasped at how small it was,” Deverell told the audience which had assembled in San Marino Center on Tuesday, January 15, 2019.
He then recited the narrative of the incident as three-year-old Kathy, her sister Barbara and two cousins went out into the field that is now the northwestern portion of the San Marino High School campus, just across the street from the Fiscus home, which at the time was located at 2590 Robles Ave.
Alice Fiscus would later say that she saw the children at play in the six-acre field that evening of Friday, April 8.
“Suddenly,” Kathy was not there,” Deverell said, quoting Alice Fiscus.
Alice Fiscus quickly went to Carver School—which later became what is now San Marino High School—as Kathy “liked the swings there,” according to Alice, but to no avail.
Then, as the family scrambled through the field, the horrible sound of Kathy crying emanated from an open well.
The Johnson Well, as it was memorialized on drawings, was originally 500-700 feet deep, according to Deverell. It was later discovered that Kathy had fallen 90 feet before she became lodged in the well.
Deverell mentioned that he has inspected the San Marino Fire Department’s log from that day, which stated simply “little girl in well.”
While Alice Fiscus and her husband, Dave, spoke to their frightened daughter in an attempt to keep her calm, rescuers dropped a rope and instructed Kathy to slide it around her waist.
“She couldn’t do it,” Deverell said in the silent hall, his voice foreshadowing the dread of the outcome.
While dozens of rescue plans were explored, two were undertaken: Dig a parallel shaft and then tunnel across to the well, or find someone small enough to enter the well and pull her up. Adding urgency to the situation was the fact that Kathy ceased crying.
“The hope at the well was that she had simply fallen asleep, like a scared little girl in a dark room,” Deverell said.
David Fiscus and other rescuers refused to let anyone go down the well. In one of the many ironies of the situation, Dave Fiscus was employed by the company that owned the well and actually served as supervisor of the property. “Dave Fiscus was someone who was in the business of digging wells,” Deverell said. “He knew how dangerous it was.”
The tedious task of tunneling conflicted with the rapid rate at which rescue plans were proposed.
“A local doctor suggested they create a vacuum and pull her out of the well,” Deverell said. “How that could be accomplished was anybody’s best guess. Another said to pour water into the well and float her up. Another said to drop sand into the well and let her simply walk to the surface as the sand filled the hole. Thankfully, nobody took them up on any of those ideas,” Deverell said, as many in the audience groaned.
This being the land of Hollywood, dwarfs were summoned to see if they would fit down the well. A local circus sent its “Thin Man.” Jockeys from Santa Anita Race Track were ushered to the scene, but none of theses options ever came to fruition.
Meanwhile, heavy excavating machinery received a police escort up the 110 Freeway as darkness enveloped Southern California. Mineworkers came to the scene from what is now called the Inland Empire, all with the best of intentions. A 24” hole is dug next to the tunnel in which Kathy is encased. Movie studios quickly donate their set lights to illuminate the rescue scene. Informed of the event by the radio and television coverage, thousands flock to San Marino, taxing an already understaffed police department. With all parking spaces occupied, drivers simply pull their automobiles onto front yards and head towards the illuminated field.
One of the tragedy’s enduring legacies is coming together at the scene. Los Angeles radio and television station KTTV sends cameras for what will be the first live remote broadcast, training their signal towards crude satellite dishes high atop Mount Wilson. The rescue attempt, narrated by reporter Stan Chambers and erstwhile sportscaster Bill Welsh, is beamed to the 20,000 television sets that existed at the time in Southern California.
“Within a couple of years, that number will grow to 200,000, mostly because of this event,” Deverell said.
“The public is fascinated by the rescue effort,” Deverell said. “Prayer circles are formed. Hymns are sung.”
The ordeal lasts 48 hours, according to Deverell, from nightfall on Friday until nightfall on Sunday. Kathy has passed away by the time she is finally reached by rescuers on Sunday evening.
“The rescuer who got to her first said she was soaking wet, 90 feet below the surface,” Deverell said. “It takes several hours to bring her up.”
Deverell explained that there were two doctors who took part in the wellside vigil.
“One is deputized to go down and declare her death,” he said. “The doctor claims he is claustrophobic and refuses. A man named Bill Yancey slugged him and knocked him woozy so they could lower him down the shaft.”
A light moment among the tragic narrative as the City Club audience erupted in spontaneous laughter.
Deverell is later asked how long he believed Kathy was alive in the well.
“A couple hours,” he said, sadness overtaking his voice. “The official cause of death is asphyxiation, but I think she drowned. In 1979, the family doctor was interviewed and said she drowned. A couple minutes later he said ‘what did I say? She died of asphyxiation.’”
“I think he wanted to protect the family from having final memories of her drowning in that well.”
“This won’t let me go,” Deverell said, explaining his attraction to the incident. “I keep going back to this little girl, and others who also died young and didn’t receive this kind of attention.”
That attention on Kathy continues to this day. Though she has taken a married name, Barbara Fiscus told Deverell that when her maiden name appears on a document, she is frequently asked if she is related to Kathy.
At the time of her death in 1949, the name “Kathy” was the 88th most popular name given to newborn girls.
“By 1952, it is the 22nd most popular name,” Deverell said, as the crowd gasped. “In that time span no other girl’s name has that much change. Not even close. Alice Fiscus received many letters from women who said they changed their newborn daughters’ name to Kathy in her honor.”
In yet another irony, the yellow cottage previously inhabited by the Fiscuses was knocked down shortly after Kathy’s death and the family moved to a house around the corner.
“Where they couldn’t see the field,” Deverell said.