Little Girl's Tragedy Was Catalyst for Live TV News STORIES THAT SHAPED THE CENTURY / From the Pages of the Los Angeles Times November 04, 1999|PATT MORRISON | TIMES STAFF WRITER The century was not quite at the halfway mark in 1949 and television, the medium that would come to dominate the rest of it, scarcely registered as much more than a novelty--until an April day when a 3-year-old girl who had probably never even seen a television program suddenly became one, and so altered television forever. It was an hour or two before dinner time when Kathy Fiscus, her older sister and two cousins were scampering through an open field in San Marino, not far from the Fiscus home. In an instant, Kathy vanished, slipping down an abandoned well, trapped in a pipe 14 inches wide. As her family searched, they heard her crying faintly from 90 feet below ground. Within an hour, police and firemen had arrived and began summoning an array of equipment that would ultimately include bulldozers, well diggers and clamshell cranes. Volunteers showed up, too--laborers and engineers to dig, a circus thin man and a jockey to try to descend into the well. The Screen Actors Guild was asked to search its files for a midget who might attempt a rescue. 20th Century Fox donated a set of movie lights to illuminate the rescue scene. 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. Perhaps it was a good thing that so few people owned TV sets at the time, because the programming usually wasn't much to brag about: boxing, wrestling, roller derby, dramas that were televised stage plays. Newscasts then were at most 15 minutes long, little more than radio with a face. And then came Kathy Fiscus, 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. At the time, there were perhaps 20,000 TV sets in Los Angeles, many of them in bars so patrons could watch sporting events. As word spread that this race to rescue could be seen live, neighbors scanned the roof lines for antennas to see who among them might have a TV. Strangers crowded into hardware stores where sets were sold. A young reporter named Cecil Smith, who would become The Times' TV critic one day, was driving home at 2 a.m. when he saw a hundred people in front of a store window, watching the Fiscus rescue attempt on TV. Such fascination with live TV news would become a regular feature of American life as viewers followed riots, high-speed chases and even low-speed chases on the small screen. And in 1987, the successful, 58-hour rescue of "Baby Jessica," an 18-month-old Texas girl who fell down a water well, again enthralled the nation; a TV movie of the event was titled "Everybody's Baby." In 1949, Kathy Fiscus was everybody's baby. Television helped to make an instant family of the nation. Even as rescuers were digging, calls offering advice and help flooded police stations, newspaper offices, radio and TV stations. They brought Kathy out of the pipe on Palm Sunday. It fell to the doctor who had delivered her to announce to the world that she had died not long after she fell in. On the day Kathy slipped down the well, her father, a water engineer, had been in Sacramento testifying about the urgent need to seal abandoned wells; his concern was oil pollution. Such laws were soon passed for safety reasons in California and other states and, in many cases, they were named the Kathy Fiscus Law. Newspapers picked up the Fiscus story thereafter, recapping it meticulously and in great detail, tracking the fate of the rescuers who had toiled so long for a child they didn't know. Newspapers told of one rescuer who bought a TV set with some of the money the grateful public had sent; he donated the set to little girls in a Duarte tuberculosis sanitarium, and the girls named it "Kathy." But the immediacy of the live pictures had been matchless, setting a standard for broadcasts and for viewers' expectations. The same day that Kathy dominated the news, a little Santa Monica girl had drowned in her family's backyard fishpond, and letter writers demanded to know why the public wasn't similarly aroused. The answer was, because it wasn't on TV. A half-century later, Mrs. Alice Fiscus lives in the San Diego area, and once in a while people see the name on a check or her credit card and remember, and ask about it. All because of television. "The world is right there, every minute now," says Mrs. Fiscus. "It's right in your lap 24 hours a day." And, she adds, "There's times when you'd just as soon not know for 48 hours." The well lies beneath a sports field now. Residents have installed a bronze plaque nearby to commemorate the 1949 event. And the child's own grave marker bears the epitaph: "a little girl who brought the world together--for a moment." Woody Allen fictionalized the Kathy Fiscus tragedy in his 1987 film Radio Days. In the film a little girl named Polly Phelps falls into a well near Stroudsburg, Pennsylvania. It becomes a big national story and, like Kathy, little Polly does not survive. The Well (1951) and Billy Wilder's 1951 film Ace in the Hole were also partially inspired by the event. In Rumer Godden's 1969 novel In This House of Brede, an American woman takes the veil in an English convent after the death of her son in a similar incident. An episode of Irwin Allen's series Land of the Giants, "Rescue", is said to be based on this event.