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KTLA and the Birth of TV News
by Cary O'Dell

Kathy Fiscus was beautiful little blond girl who died in April of 1949 at the age of three and a half. Little Kathy perished when she fell into the remnants of a 110-foot deep, abandoned well in a grassy field located in San Marino, California. Kathy’s mother was alerted almost immediately of the accident by a young playmate of her daughters. Mrs. Fiscus immediately called the local fire department. Not long after, professional pipefitters, machinists, crane operators and other laborers rushed to the field to assist in the rescue effort. Soon, more than 100 were on the lot, gathered around the lip of the narrow hole that spanned only 14 inches across. Not long after that, the Red Cross arrived with food and other necessities for the workers, so did radio and newspaper reporters.

KTLA News 1949Also arriving on the scene—TV cameras.

By 1949, TV was already a steady if wobbly presence in people’s lives. Network and local broadcasting was already a reality. But there was still some debate about whether sound + pictures + the home would prove to be more than just a passing fad. Only about 20,000 people in the LA area had so far taken the plunge and bothered to actually purchase a TV set. It was a token portion of people in a city of nearly 2 million.

Organized TV news existed by that time too. Most of it, though, was studio-based. TV cameras of the era were big, bulky. News readers—like John Cameron Swayze of NBC’s “Camel News Caravan”—were live in the studio with their reports being pre-filmed packages, similar to the newsreels that once (and, at that time, still did) play in local movie theaters.

But when word of the real-life drama unfolding in San Marino reached local station KTLA (first signed on the air, 1947), what had so far been the norm for TV news, and TV, would soon change forever.

At considerable risk to his station’s budget and equipment, KTLA’s then General Manager Klaus Landsberg dispatched reporters Stan Chambers and Bill Welsh, along with himself and a small crew, to cover the San Marino events live. All of the station’s scheduled programming and commercials were cancelled in order to bring to KTLA viewers continuous coverage of all rescue efforts.

KTLA would be on the air, uninterrupted, for the next 27 and half hours as the rescue drama unfolded.

On the scene, early attempts to get a rope or harness to the trapped little girl failed. Various volunteers who were small in stature or extremely limber rushed to the scene in San Marino and offered to be lowered into the tunnel. When these plans failed, rescue workers decided that it would be necessary to drill a larger hole parallel to the well and attempt to retrieve Kathy through that.

Ground was quickly broke on the companion shaft but after its initial 50 feet were excavated, the sides of the shaft began to cave in due to the heavy sand component of the soil. At one point, a microphone was lowered into the abyss and faint sounds of what was believed to be Kathy’s breathing could be heard.

As day turned into night, flood lights were shipped in. On the ground’s other side, a new dig was commenced. But progress was slow, the ground was rocky and jack hammers had to be employed to break up stones. Nevertheless, hourly updates were issued to the waiting press and anxious onlookers: 38 feet, 40 feet….

At one point, water flooded into the new tunnel and work ceased for three interminable hours as it was pumped out.

As the efforts dragged on, it was estimated that nearly 5,000 people were gathered around the site. But for everyone on the scene, hundreds of others were following the story via the media.

And while radio proved a resource and comfort to many, TV with its offer of live pictures began to take precedence. People whose neighbors owned televisions migrated to their houses next door while stores that either sold TV’s or had them available for viewing became the source of instant video vigils. It was reported that the highway suddenly cleared and local restaurants noted a drop in business as people stayed in front of their TV’s waiting for the news of Kathy.

At the scene, workers finally reached a depth at which they could now drill across to, hopefully, reach Kathy. Kathy was encased in the abandoned well’s metal casing, a pipe, hence, it had to be drilled through. But, here again, process was frustrating slow. Drill bits used to pierce the metal broke frequently and had to be replaced. Buckets of replacement blades were regularly lowered down into the cavern. Finally, word came up—the miners had broken through by creating a small jagged window into the well casing. Ordering that all machinery be shut off, so he could hear, workman Albert Linell listened for Kathy’s voice or her breathing. But he heard nothing. Eventually, her pink dress and part of her arm became visible through the tear. But it was too late.

Late that day, April 10, over a PA system at the location, a physician made the announcement that Kathy’s lifeless body had finally been reached. Her body was fully excavated from the well at approximately 10pm that Palm Sunday. The only consolation that arrived came via the knowledge that it was likely that Kathy died not long after her fall, from the lack of oxygen available to her in the deep shaft.

Both KTLA and another local station, KTTV, reported the story’s sad outcome and each station then decamped from the rescue site and each station eventually resumed its regular programming.

In the days that followed, things changed. New laws were passed that called for the covering or filling of all abandoned wells. Money that was donated to the Fiscus family was redistributed by the family to local charities.

Things changed for the young TV medium as well. As Bill Welch, one of KTLA’s reporters at the scene stated decades later, “Television was like home movies. You turned it on for a few laughs. Suddenly, here came this event and people said, ‘This thing rally has impact. This television has a heart and a soul.’ And they realized for the first time how it was going to affect our lives.”

(Criticism about the medium’s power also seemed to have been born at the time of the Fiscus coverage. Around the same time of Kathy’s fatal accident, another local child drowned in a fish pond. Some wondered by that child’s death didn’t get the attention or the reaction that Kathy’s did. The answer: it wasn’t shown on television.)

Besides altering the way that news events were covered, the Fiscus story may have had an even greater, immediate impact on the rise of the TV medium. During the urgent days of the Fiscus saga there is considerable evidence of a startling uptick in the sale of TV sets in the California area. In seems, at this time, people were rushing out and buying and installing televisions in their homes with the specific purpose of following the unfolding rescue efforts.

The Kathy Fiscus story has since been called TV news’s “baptism by fire.” It would forever impact how television would cover news stories and how audiences experienced them. “After-the-fact” reportage was no longer good enough. People, viewers, citizens, wanted (and could handle) live coverage; perhaps they even became dependent upon it.

 

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