Framework

Kathy Fiscus rescue chronicle

On April 8, 1949, Kathy Fiscus, 3, fell down an abandoned well in San Marino. The resulting rescue attempt gripped Southern California. Television stations KTLA and KTTV broadcast live.

As part of its coverage, the Los Angeles Times published a “Rescue Chronicle.” From the April 10 and 11, 1949, editions:

FRIDAY (April 8, 1949):

4:45 p.m.–The child, in a footrace in a vacant lot, fell into a 230-foot abandoned water well.

5 p.m.–Her playmates notified Mrs. Alice Fiscus, who called police.

5:45 p.m.–Police and firemen attempted to pull the child from the well by ropes and failed. They dropped air hoses through the mouth of the well to insure ventilation. Mrs. Fiscus could hear Kathy’s crying voice.

6 p.m.–Massive clamshell cranes arrived to dig for the trapped child.

6:30 p.m.–Mrs. Fiscus could no longer hear her daughter’s voice.

Midnight–A 5-inch rubber ball filled with sand was dropped in the well. It fell a distance of 87 feet before meeting an object in the narrow casing.

SATURDAY (April 9, 1949):

4 a.m.–A pit dug beside the well had reached a vertical depth of about 65 feet. Workmen began tunneling from the center of the pit to the well’s pipe shaft.

6:45 a.m.–Albert Linell, one of the workmen, reached the well casing that imprisoned Kathy. He could not hear her voice or any breathing.

7 a.m.–A 35-inch corrugated steel tube to protect workmen was lowered into the pit. Earth was cleared for a driller to saw a hole into the well casing.

9:30 a.m.–The cutting of a window in the wall of the casing was begun, two hours later it was completed.

11:30 a.m.–Kathy’s dress and a part of her arm were believed sighted by workmen at a depth of 95 feet–38 feet below the window.

Noon–The pit was abandoned for fear of cave-ins. Drilling was resumed by a second rig–a rotary well digger–on the other side of the lip of the well.

2:45 p.m.–The well digger, slowed by boulders, had reached a depth of 80 feet. It was predicted that it might be midnight before the estimated location of the child was reached.

6 p.m.–The rotary drill had bit to a depth of 88 feet.

7:45 p.m.–The 30-inch rescue shaft reached 93 feet depth.

8:15 p.m.–The first 20-foot welded steel casing was lowered into the rescue shaft.

10:30 p.m.–Last of the four welded steel casing sections was put into place. Work on the lateral tunnel had begun. It was estimated that Kathy would be reached by 3 a.m. today at the latest.

SUNDAY (April 10, 1949):

12:01 a.m.–The bottom of the rescue shaft has been reached and a cramped cavern has been hallowed out. Diggers work to remove more earth and expand the working area.

1:45 a.m.–At 89 feet the diggers strike hard clay and rocks. Worse, there is evidence of water seepage.

2:40 a.m.–Bartram (Herb) Herpel, sewer contractor, comes up after deepening the rescue hole to 93 feet. He reports the presence of hard clay, with the possibility that a horizontal tunnel can be dug without shoring to the old well pipe in which Kathy is imprisoned.

3:17 a.m.–Protective casing of rescue shaft is lowered five more feet. B. A. Gorham goes down to see what the situation is.

4 a.m.–Mark Nottingham, who has taken over unofficial supervision of the operation, goes down the shaft for a quick inspection. Only a relatively few inches separate the imprisoned child from her dogged rescuers.

6:25 a.m.–Tools are assembled to make climactic cut-through to Kathy. But as they are about to be lowered into the rescue shaft, Bill Yancey emerges with the report that water is flooding the rescue cavern. The work cannot proceed. The water level must be reduced.

7 a.m.– H. E. (Whitey) Blickensderfer, volunteer “foreman” of the rescue crew, goes down for a look. He returns to the surface to confer with other volunteers. They decide to work a nearby pump at full capacity to draw off the water below the ground and decrease the water level in the shaft.

7:30 a.m.–Water is reported flowing into the rescue shaft at three gallons a minute, but the abandoned well is believed to be free of water at the level Kathy is presumed to be trapped. The pump starts.

8:45 a.m.–Flow of water below ground increases, jeopardizing the entire rescue plan–already completely changed once.

9:15 a.m.–Volunteer Paul Neiford goes down rescue shaft for an inspection and finds that the water level has receded to the point where work can resume. The casing in the shaft is raised five feet to permit a more pronounced cut toward the well pipe and the race against death continues.

10:10 a.m.–The well pipe is cracked at the 94-foot level. Twigs and debris are disclosed. Kathy is presumed to be above this point.

10:20 a.m.–Police estimated 6,000 spectators have gathered in the bright Palm Sunday morn. Saturday’s crowd of thousands drifted away during the chill night.

11:30 a.m.–New timbers are lowered into rescue shaft to prop roof of linking tunnel.

12:20 p.m.–Three feet of water-bearing sand falls from roof of tunnel, partly burying two rescuers working in 18 inches of water. They are pulled free and returned to the surface exhausted but uninjured.

2:25 p.m.–Tunnel is rebolstered with additional timbers and deemed safe for drilling operations. Leonard Kelly of Temple City goes down with pneumatic drill and small parachute harness to lift Kathy to the top when she is extricated.

3 p.m.–Kelly is dissatisfied with results from pneumatic drill. He calls for pneumatic saw to cut 12-by-18 inch “window” in the well pipe through which to reach Kathy.

3:40 p.m.–Two holes are drilled through the well pipe and pins are slipped across the pipe to prevent Kathy from tumbling farther down. The child is presumed to be about one foot above the pins.

4:10 p.m.–More carbon blades are requested. In five minutes a fresh bucketful is sent down the rescue shaft to the cutters below. Additional cribbing for support of the ground is also requested by the men in the hole. O. A. Kelly and H. E. (Whitey) Blickensderfer have remained more then two hours at the bottom cutting at the well pipe.

4:40 p.m.–Blickensderfer announces through the speaker system that they are breaking one blade to every four inches of cutting. The crowd grows as news spreads that the climax is near.

5:30 p.m.–Kelly and Blickensderfer request that their microphones be disconnected from the public address system at the surface. They talk privately with Raymond Hill, engineer bossing the rescue.

6 p.m.–After two days of continuously pumping air into the old well, the procedure is stopped abruptly by a fireman assigned to the hand pump. This is the first indication Kathy is dead.

6:03 p.m.–Hill announces that Kathy’s body has been sighted by rescuers drilling through the iron pipe 94 feet underground. He does not say whether she is alive or dead.

6:35 p.m.–An ambulance is backed to within eight feet of the well opening.

6:47 p.m.–Two rescue volunteers at the mouth of the well pull gently on a rope dropped into the hole.

7 p.m.–Hill talks privately with Kelly in the rescue shaft, with the speaker system cut out.

7:20 p.m.–Firemen start pumping air into the well again. They say the order to cease was given erroneously by someone they do not identify.

7:29 p.m.–Three paper cups are lowered into the rescue shaft without an explanation. Still no official word has been given concerning Kathy’s death.

7:40 p.m.–Kelly is pulled from the rescue shaft without Kathy, and rescue operations slacken – the first real indication the child is dead.

8:12 p.m.–Bill Yancey is lowered into the rescue shaft on a bucket on the end of a cable. Dr. Robert McCullock tries on parachute-type harness preparatory to following Yancy.

8:20 p.m.–Dr. McCullock, clad in blue jacket, aviator’s cap and dungaree trousers, begins descent into shaft.

8:31 p.m.–Word is passed from bottom of rescue shaft to being pulling gently on rope lowered into old well casing. Yancey’s voice heard saying, “Keep it coming up gently. Easy, men,” as six volunteers being pulling on rope snubbed once around a timber across top of well.

8:36 p.m.–Rope from old well belayed around timber while rescuers participated in conference. Six men continue to hold line as they stand on edge of excavation by the well.

8:48 p.m.–Only one man left holding rope leading into abandoned shaft.

8:53 p.m.–Dr. Paul Hanson announces Kathy is dead.

For more, check out Little Girl’s Tragedy Was Catalyst for Live TV News, a Nov. 9, 1999, story by Patt Morrison.

scott.harrison@latimes.com

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