Little Girl Who Brought the World Together

August 1945. Fifteen days after the nuclear bomb Little Boy was dropped on Hiroshima and twelve days after Fat Man was detonated over Nagasaki, a little girl named Kathy came into the world. Six days after the second atomic attack, Japan surrendered, ending World War II. Kathy’s birth came six days after the surrender — a time of victory and hope.

April 1949. Kathy was three and a half, playing with her sister and cousin in a field near her home in San Marino, California. She tried her best to keep up with the older children, nine and five. They were racing each other, running through tall weeds, unaware of danger.

Across the country at the same time, Mama and Dad were moving into their brand new house on Deering Street in Cleveland, Mississippi. Mama was newly pregnant, preparing a nest for her expanding family — me, the anticipated one.

Kathy lagged behind the bigger children, then all of a sudden vanished. Her cousin heard faint screams and followed the sounds to an open hole — fourteen inches across — hidden in a clump of weeds. Kathy had fallen into an abandoned water well. No one even knew it was there, where the children played. Kathy’s sister and cousin ran to get her mother, who called down to the little girl. “Are you all right, honey?” A faint “Yes” came back. Then Kathy began to cry, perhaps perceiving that her mama might not be able to make everything better this time.

Policemen arrived and lowered a rope, hoping to slip it over the child’s head and shoulders. They feared the noose might have tightened around Kathy’s neck and stopped their attempts.

The community rallied to the narrow hole in the field after the first radio call for help. A family was in trouble; someone’s baby was trapped in a narrow rusty iron pipe one hundred feet below the surface.

The sting of irony is that Kathy’s father was the current district superintendent of the California Water & Telephone Company, which had drilled the well forty-six years earlier. He had just returned from testifying before the state legislature for a measure that would require the cementing of all old, abandoned wells, like this one.

A frantic rescue attempt ensued. Help flooded in to San Marino. Derricks, drills, bulldozers, and trucks were rushed to the field from surrounding towns. Three giant cranes slugged through Los Angeles with a police escort. Firemen ran an air hose down the pipe and began pumping air with a rotary pump. An hour after Kathy’s fall, a power-drill crew started to sink a shaft alongside the abandoned well. On the opposite side, clamshell shovels clawed an open pit for exploration. Hollywood studios sent fifty floodlights, as night was approaching. Volunteer workers rushed to the scene to help — engineers, sandhogs, retired miners, cesspool diggers.

An entire nation — and world — waited for word on little Kathy.

Mama and Dad were among those anxious for news of Kathy’s rescue. They kept in tune on the radio. Mama prayed for the little girl’s safety, prayed that she’d be brought up alive and placed in her mother’s arms. Mama knew what it was like to watch a child suffer; she’d seen what it was like for a parent to lose a child. Her brother Art lost a son, Eugene, at three months. Her sister Edna lost a daughter, Gloria Jean, at six months, and her sister May lost two — Frankie to scarlet fever at four and Shirley to pneumonia at one. And now, here Mama was, expecting her own child, hoping for a girl, empathizing with a mother for whom time was running out.

Workers dug all night long. By midmorning the next day they had tunneled from the shaft to the well pipe and cut an exploratory hole in its side. Looking in with flashlights and mirrors, they spotted a flash of pink forty feet below in a bend in the pipe. So they drilled the narrow shaft deeper, ran into trouble short of the 100-foot mark, and had to dig by hand the rest of the way. Men were lowered one by one in a hoisting bucket to take turns doing the grueling work. Bill Yancey, a 38-year-old sewerage contractor who had been on a wartime underwater demolition team, dug for two hours and twenty minutes before he was hauled out. By midnight 12,000 people had gathered in the field, keeping watch and waiting for the child to be rescued.

At last workers began digging laterally toward Kathy, but water poured into the tunnel and stopped the progress until the shaft could be pumped dry. Then the lateral tunnel began caving in and had to be shored. In spite of the danger, the men worked on. It took forty-eight hours for them to reach the well pipe. They drilled to cut into it, and drill after drill broke, so they tried a pneumatic saw. Finally, at 6 p.m. Sunday evening, a doctor was hoisted below. Moments later, the announcement came over the loudspeaker: “Kathy is dead…” Her knees were wedged against her chest, so her chest could not expand to take in oxygen. She had suffocated.

The doctor asked the crowd to leave. Then Bill Yancey was hauled up the shaft, carrying a small, blanketed body. He laid the bundle on a white pillow in the back of a black car.

Kathy’s grave marker bears the inscription: “One Little Girl Who United the World for a Moment.”

Her fifty-two-hour rescue introduced a new dimension to news reporting — live, onsite television broadcasting, letting the world see and hear a developing story and feel the emotions that go with it.

It was the first time Mama had heard the name “Kathy.” It was short and simple, and she liked the sound of it. When the time came, she gave it to me. I got my name from the little girl who brought the world together.

[“The Lost Child,” Time, April 18, 1949]

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15 Comments on “Little Girl Who Brought the World Together”

  1. Eric says:

    …. wow…. what a powerful and tragic story….

  2. Finn says:

    Lovely and sad.

  3. Carina says:

    My grandmother told me this story and sang the song to me when I was little, now I will tell my little girl. I will do this so that Little Kathy’s memory lives on… Her smile so innocent hurts my heart, to see that she died so young…. I live walking distance from her grave site and on her birthday nala and I will be placing a pink rose….

  4. Deborah Rey says:

    And you the Kathy of today, in telling the beautiful and so terribly sad story of little Kathy of yesteryear, again bring the world together.

  5. john says:

    I was wondering wether Kathy’s family is still around [father,mother,brothers,sisters,] Just want to know Thank you

  6. Janice says:

    My Father was one of the ones that helped on the attempted recue little Kathy Fiscus. I never realized how important this rescue was to him until I was older. My dad was heart-broken when he couldn’t save her. I know for a fact that that story made it into the papers all around the world, even in Soviet Russia…..My Dad name is Bartram Herpel, and he was honored for his attempt. I just thought I would share this with everyone. My Dad passed away a few weeks ago at the age of 84. He served his country and his commuity with pride.

  7. Larry Parish says:

    I was 9 years old at the time living in Palms, Ca. Kathy’s tragedy is well remembered by most of my friends and me. I think about it every once in a while and just decided to do a search tonight. I read the story and want to thank the author. I not only remember watching on a neighbor’s TV, but one of the LA papers, I think it was The Hearld published the story with a circle representing the the size of the well on its front page. I remember putting the paper on the floor and standing in the circle telling my parents I could fit down the well and get Kathy. We were all hoping for a better ending. I hope the years were kind to the family there after.

  8. Richard Davis says:

    I was 8 when this tragedy happened and we were living in Glendale, CA., very close to San Marino. We watched the rescue attemp on TV as we were one of the families lucky enough to have a set. I also think about Kathy from time to time and and have never forgotten her. I decided to type her name on the Internet and am glad I did. I guess I didn’t expect so many people to remember her. I had not seen Kathy’s picture before and maybe wish I hadn’t now. When I think about this tragedy I feel as if I had lost a loved one. I have grand children her age and cannot think of loosing them. I lost a brother 31 years ago.

  9. Sandra says:

    I would love to get in touch with Janice, Bartram Herpel’s daughter. Our condolences for her loss. My husband, Clyde Harp, was also one of the rescuers. He, along with Herb Herpel and a few others, took turns going down into the rescue shaft. As far as we know, Clyde is the only rescuer still living. The Huntington Library is doing a special project about Kathy Fiscus and are seeking more information. We have a lot of photos and articles that the family saved. They are now on loan to the Huntington. Also, a woman in IL has written a book (unpublished as yet). I’ve seen her draft and it has a lot of authentic detail. Just think – that little girl is affecting lives is many ways even nearly 60 years after her tradegy.

  10. Gisèle Thibeault says:

    My mother told me Kathy’s story when I was very young. She had a record with the song written about Kathy’s tragic death. Her story touched me and I will never forget it.

  11. Janice says:

    This message is for sandra, I am Bartram Herpel daughter, MY father help in the rescue of Kathy Fiscus, I live in Goldsboro NC, and I would love to help you out with the research for your project. you can also email me at Jorander@yahoo.com. I would love to hear from you.

  12. Sandra Harp says:

    This message is for JANICE. Thanks for leaving your post – I tried to e-mail you at the address shown but Yahoo sent it back twice saying that address doesn’t exist. There must be an error of some kind. Please get in touch with me at sugarharp@hotmail.com so that we can “talk”. Thanks.

  13. Trudy Noriega says:

    Bill Yancey was my Uncle! He loved children so…much. I know it broke his heart that day.

  14. Trudy Noriega says:

    Unfortunatly, My uncle lost his life almost the same way years later.

  15. Larry Medearis says:

    I was 7 at the time and lived in Rosemead, California. (short distance away]. We listened on the radio and to this day it is one of the more memorable events in my life. That and perhaps the JFK assasination. Mr. Parish I frequently visit your nephew’s “Blue Heron” in Clay Center, Kansas. Good food.


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