Extra! Book Review – Kathy Fiscus: A Tragedy That Transfixed The Nation

Kathy Fiscus: A Tragedy That Transfixed The Nation by William Deverell Angel City Press, 2021, 164pp $30/£25

About now, director Ron Howard (Apollo 13, Backdraft, A Beautiful Mind) is due to start filming Thirteen Lives in Queensland, Australia. It’s the second movie adaptation of a 2018 news story that was seen around the world: the rescue of story 12 young teenagers and their soccer coach from a rain-flooded cave in Northern Thailand.

Two volunteers Thai Navy SEAL divers died during the rescue, which was broadcast, streamed, and commented on in real time, the horrific thought of anyone being accidentally lost in a dark, confined space something that terrified us all.

At the time of the Thai rescue an elderly lady in America named Alice Fiscus was asked for her thoughts, and the new digest-sized book by William Deverell explains why, as it covers the tragic story of Alice’s daughter Kathy, who fell down an abandoned metal-lined water well in San Marino, California in 1949.

Kathy was playing hide-and-seek with her sister and a cousin when she slipped or fell over 90 feet down the shaft, which was only 14 inches across (barely two thirds of the length of your arm).

Her attempted improvised rescue, and the enormous media circus (almost literally: little people, circus performers and acrobats volunteered to go down to save the frightened three-year-old), was one of the first live television news broadcasts in America.

Broadcast on radio for over 24 hours too, the event was a huge sensation. Crowds as big as 10,000 assembled to watch as ditch diggers, miners, WWII vets, engineers, police, firemen and countless others tried to help, and there was a chaotic, almost carnival-like atmosphere.   

The book features many family and rescue photographs, many of them unseen before and all arrestingly moving, and Deverell covers the period briskly but comprehensively. From a history of local water and wells, to the Famine-era Irish roots of the Fiscus family, to the chaotic and lengthy rescue attempt itself, and even tackling questions about what happened to Kathy.

The book also looks at the effect it had popular culture.

Since then, movies and television have often utilized Fiscus’s story to induce instant drama and tension, and to indicate how a family, community, country and even a world might temporarily join together in hope.

There was a television movie made of a similar 1987 incident, when 18-month-old Jessica McClure fell down a well in Texas. That attempt frequently referenced Kathy – and spoke to Alice – and though McClure had fallen around 20 feet into an even narrower space, she was saved after over two days.  

This happy ending perhaps allowed for a humorous episode of “The Simpsons” a few years later, when Bart used a walkie talkie to pretend to be a boy who had fallen down a well – and then gets stuck there himself, only to find the Springfield citizens didn’t find his prank very funny.

Perhaps most notable is the famous cliché about Lassie running to the local sheriff or adult and barking until the human cottons on: “What’s that? Little Timmy has fallen down a well?” (a storyline that actually never happened in any Lassie episode or film).

The book might have benefited from giving the reader more of a sense of Kathy as a child and sister, young as she was, because in some ways the advanced media (at least of her era) turned her almost into a generic term for childhood accidents, her actual death being almost overshadowed.

Recently the “Ghost Adventures” reality program and Netflix documentary “Crime Scene: The Vanishing at the Cecil Hotel” (the latter, interestingly, co-executive produced by Ron Howard), featured the story of student Elisa Lam, who was found drowned in a water tank (water again), atop the Hotel Cecil in downtown LA in 2013.

The internet has arguably turned Lam into a mere backdrop for wild conspiracy theories about her death, with it even being linked to Dark Water, a 2005 US supernatural remake of an earlier Japanese film. In many ways, both have seemed to become a kind of catch-all phrase for “that girl/woman who died in the well/water tower.”

Different media, different times and different people to be sure, and while Deverell often writes that he’s obsessed with the Kathy Fiscus story, in part surely because he is a parent who, like other parents who hear such stories of disappearance must feel their blood run cold, here he’s shown restraint, and a welcome respect for the facts of an unhappy moment in history.

At the funeral, which was broadcast to 1,000 people outside the church, an Irish lullaby was played: it was Kathy’s favorite, and her mother often sang it to her. As Kathy’s name is perhaps slowly forgotten, even if her story isn’t, her short life is perhaps summed up by the message on her grave:

“One Little Girl Who United The World For A Moment”