"Old letters and newspaper clippings from yellowed and crumbling scrapbooks helped me sharpen the memories of that April weekend in San Marino--40 years ago--when rescuers tried to save 3-year-old Kathy Fiscus. She had fallen into an abandoned well shaft that was only 14 inches in diameter and became trapped more than 100 feet underground.
Kathy had been running and playing with her cousins in an open field covered with tall spring grass when she disappeared that Friday. Her cries could be heard, but she was nowhere to be seen.
Kathy's mother screamed for help and emergency crews soon converged on the field and the rescue attempt began.
As efforts continued Saturday, one of television's brilliant pioneers, KTLA General Manager Klaus Landsberg, made the decision to provide live coverage. All programming and commercials were canceled, and Bill Welch and I began our open-ended, uninterrupted reports from the scene that afternoon.
KTLA's marathon, 27 1/2-hour coverage of the rescue attempt was one of the turning points in television history.
Up until then, television was a flickering new novelty and not taken seriously by many people. This telecast changed that view forever. People were irresistibly drawn to the tragic reality that was taking place on the screen of their living-room set. It was a television experience they would remember a lifetime.
I still have several people tell me each week how vividly they remember the Kathy Fiscus telecast.
It seemed as if all of Los Angeles stopped to watch the drama unfold. Neighbors who had rarely spoken to each other became close friends as they sat in front of black-and-white television sets. They sipped coffee and munched on sandwiches throughout the night. A hard-boiled city poured out its tears and silent prayers as frantic men worked in a dark tunnel trying to rescue a little girl.
Then came the devastating moment Sunday night when a doctor used a public address system to announce that Kathy was dead. Tired, dirty, beaten men with 40 and 50 hours of constant work behind them wept openly with bitter tears. Rescuers stood silently, heads bowed, unwilling to accept the news. The crowd of thousands was stunned. Viewers at home felt the pang of sorrow. There was no way to express the loss.
The only solace was the fact that she probably died shortly after she fell into the well Friday night and did not suffer long.
The outpouring of mail after the Kathy Fiscus telecast was overwhelming and emotional. It also bore witness to the powerful, yet intimate role that television would come to play in its viewers' lives."
Everyone in my family watched the television screen that weekend. We listened to the newsmen report every word, we heard the minute-by-minute details, along with television viewers in our town and across the nation. We watched as hundreds of rescuers used every means possible to rescue Kathy from the depth and darkness of the earth---an earth that held her tiny body-captive.
Millions of people consistently prayed for a little girl they didn't know except for a picture. It seemed that the whole world was united in a common cause....to save the small girl who fell in the abandoned well.
Kathy Fiscus, just another three-year-old...loved and adored by family and friends, and now...loved by the world. She belonged to every loving family, every grandparent, everyone who loved children.
Yes, the world mourned when Kathy died that April weekend in 1949 ....yet, because of her death, laws were passed that immediately called for every open well , anywhere, to have a cover and for all abandoned wells to be permanently sealed.
In my mind, Kathy will forever-be the world's hero.
A large portion of my career was spent in Television. I know its value. I also understand how Television could serve the world as the greatest communicator.
Like everything with endless potential, Television can either pull us together or tear us apart. It all depends on who's sitting in the big chair... behind the control panel.. and what powerful element is directing the picture, the sound.....and the purpose.