In 1949, a tragedy reverberated across North America and beyond.What tragedy could capture such attention, if not a war, an epidemic, a catastrophic natural disaster? On April 8, 1949, three-year-old Kathryn Anne Fiscus fell into a well in San Marino, California.
My mother was 14 years old at the time, and remembers sitting by the radio listening as the story of her attempted rescue unfolded. She remembers it to this day, and every April reminds me of the anniversary of Kathy’s death.
According to online sources, in the afternoon of Friday, April 8, 1949, Kathy was playing with her nine-year-old sister, Barbara, and cousin, Gus, in a field in San Marino when she fell down the 14-inch-wide (360 mm) shaft of an abandoned water well. Her father, David, worked for the California Water and 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 from a dozen towns, three giant cranes, and 50 floodlights from Hollywood studios.”
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 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 as it was carried live on radio and on television, which was a still-new medium. “Radio, in those days, seemed like it was more powerful than TV to me now, but maybe because my mind was younger,” Mom said. She’s sure, though, that there’s at least one way radio was more powerful in a way TV isn’t: “You had to listen, and to picture in your mind.”
To hear of Kathy’s cries, to hear silence, to hear the news that she was dead. Those pictures were horrific.
Country singer Jimmie Osborne wrote and recorded the 1949 song The Death of Little Kathy Fiscus. It sold over one million copies and Osborne donated half the proceeds to the Fiscus family. Other artists recorded versions of the song, including Kitty Wells and Howard Vokes.
I’m sure she’s an angel, in God’s peaceful fold
Playing with children, in a mansion of gold
As I stand alone, humbly I bow
I know Kathy’s happy, up there with God now
– Jimmie Osborne
Last month, a two-year-old boy named Chase Martens tragically died. His disappearance too drew nationwide attention; he was the subject of an extensive search. Days later the toddler’s body was found in a creek near his family’s farm in Austin, Manitoba. We followed the story primarily on TV and Internet sources. We mourned the announcement of his death. I’m thankful that the news spared us those final pictures—but I can picture them nonetheless.
This weekend I touched base via Facebook with someone who used to live here, but whom I haven’t talked to in many years. Was the young girl on his page his daughter, I asked? Yes, Doug said. And then he said something I found profoundly beautiful: “She’s the other half of my heartbeat.”
Count your blessings, every day.
Chase Martens’ family won’t watch their son get silly with Cheerios ever again. Kathy’s family didn’t have an opportunity to see the woman she would become.
They are forever young.