It was 40 years ago next Sunday that 3-year-old Kathy Fiscus fell into an abandoned well while playing in a field near her San Marino home. As thousands of Southern Californians sat transfixed in front of their television sets, frantic volunteers clawed at the earth to reach the child trapped nearly 100 feet down in a narrow pipe.
After 52 hours they did reach her, only to learn that she apparently had been dead almost from the start.
Today, Alice Fiscus, Kathy's widowed mother, lives in the San Diego County community of Rancho Bernardo, doing volunteer work for Pomerado Hospital and being reminded now and again of that ghastly weekend in 1949.
"Especially at this time of year . . . ," she says.
There are, she adds, "little things that occur. . . . There is rarely a time when I show a charge card or give my name that people don't start talking about Kathy, without even knowing that I am related . . . ."
Once, a man called to ask what had happened to all the royalties from a recorded song about Kathy. "That came as a jolt to me," she says, "that people thought we made money out of it. We never gave permission for any song, poem or movie about her. Any money that came in went to the fund for the rescue workers."
Kathy's death was brought back to her vividly in October, 1987, when 18-month-old Jessica McClure plunged down a shaft in Texas. Jessica survived. But the circumstances and the massive rescue efforts in both cases were so similar that Fiscus was moved to send her "love and prayers" to Jessica's family.
And although she had never before granted an interview, she relented then because "it might help other children."
Although so-called "Kathy Fiscus laws" were quickly enacted to require the filling and capping of abandoned wells, Alice Fiscus said she is appalled that "you see so many construction sites where they have dug large holes. . . . The rain gets in there and a child could fall in."
The old well that claimed her daughter has long since been filled in. There is no trace of it on what is now an athletic field at San Marino High School. The nearest reference is a bronze marker behind the San Marino City Library, a few blocks away. It recalls Kathy as "a little girl who brought the world together--for a moment."
Alice and David Fiscus and their other daughter, Barbara--who was 9 at the time of the tragedy--moved to Monterey in 1968 when he was transferred by California American Water Co. Five years later he retired and they moved to Hidden Meadows near Escondido. He died in 1975.
Barbara, also widowed, now lives near her mother in Rancho Bernardo.
Friendly, white-haired Alice Fiscus still cannot forget that the tragedy gripped so many people throughout the world. "It was astounding to us," she says. "We got tens of thousands of letters from (almost every) country. It was the most marvelous outpouring of love. We went through every one of them."
Kathy is buried in Chula Vista, where the family originally lived. Alice Fiscus says that when she visits the grave, she usually finds that someone has left flowers.