By Chuck Ross
From the end of 1947 to his retirement in 2010, Stan Chambers, a reporter during all of that time at KTLA, told the story of the city of Los Angeles. He covered the Watts riots, the assassination of Robert Kennedy, and he broke the story of the beating of Rodney King by police.
According to the KTLA website, “Chambers passed away shortly after 10:30 a.m. [today, Friday, Feb. 13, 2015] at his Holmby Hills home surrounded by family, according to his daughter Mary Moro. He is survived by his wife Gigi, 11 children, 38 grandchildren and eight great grandchildren.”
The KTLA website says that after returning from serving in the Navy, Chambers was working at a magazine over at USC:
“I heard a program one night saying that one of the local television stations had expanded its broadcasting schedule,” Chamber said during a 2010 retrospective of his career. “I didn’t even know that television was on the air. And I said, ‘How about doing a program on a campus magazine?’ That was my debut and after it was over, I thought, ‘Oh, this is a wonderful job.'”
The story on the website continues: “A few months later, KTLA invited Stan to join the fledgling station. He started work on Dec. 1, 1947.”
It was about a year and a half later that Chambers, along with his colleague at KTLA, reporter Bill Welsh, made TV history. It was over the weekend of Saturday, April 9th and Sunday, April 10th, 1949. On Friday afternoon, a little girl, three-year-old Kathy Fiscus, had fallen down an abandoned water well in San Marino, Calif. San Marino is right next to Pasadena.
The next day KTLA sent a remote van, along with Welsh and Chambers, to cover the rescue.
All of the following is excerpted from a much longer account of the rescue in Chambers’ remarkable 2008 book that’s a must-read for anyone seriously interested in popular culture, the history of TV and TV news, “KTLA’s News at Ten, Sixty Years with Stan Chambers.”
“Just in time, Stan,” Bill Welsh said [soon after I had arrived on the scene].
“We’ll be going on in about ten minutes.”
“What’s the story?”
“A little girl fell into that abandoned well last night, and they’ve been trying to dig her out ever since.”
“Is she alive?”
“Yes. Her mother could hear her crying in the well right after she fell in.”
Bill walked me back to the excavation. “They started digging the hole last night. It got deeper and deeper, and the sides began to slide and dirt kept pouring down on the guys working at the bottom. There’s no shoring or anything to protect the men down there.” He pointed to the well casing in the center. “Little Kathy— she’s not even four years old—is stuck somewhere inside of that mess.” A sick feeling gnawed in the pit of my stomach as Bill and I put on our headphones.
Although progress was slow, Bill and I had many things to talk about as we tag-teamed between talking to the rescue workers about new developments and announcing those plans during on-camera sessions. The story moved slowly but dramatically as everyone kept hope alive of rescuing Kathy Fiscus within a few hours. Bill and I tried to keep an optimistic tone in our reports.
I remember repeating several times, “Kathy’s mother heard her crying in the well right after she fell in. Her rescuers believe that she’s unconscious and oblivious to what’s going on.” [The] shots of firemen turning a crank on a small air pump were especially poignant, and captured everyone’s desperation to save little Kathy. When it showed on the air, I remained silent, letting the picture speak for itself.
Although Bill and I didn’t know it then, word that KTLA was telecasting the rescue effort swept through the city. Thousands turned their sets on and became involved in the drama unfolding before their eyes. Circus thin men and contortionists volunteered to be lowered into the hole upside down to try to get her out. The opening was only fourteen inches wide, but they believed they could go down the pipe, reach her, and pull her back up. Plumbers, sandhogs, specialty miners, and others with varying experience volunteered to go down into the hole to get her out.
News of the rescue attempt was also picked up by the wire services and transmitted to major cities all over the country. It became an international incident. Newspapers in Stockholm, London, and Australia held the presses for news of Kathy. Radio stations kept interrupting their broadcasts to bring listeners up to date. Switchboards at newspaper offices and radio stations all over the country were jammed with calls.
This was one of the first times a television station cut into a film it was broadcasting, cancelled it, and went to the scene of a breaking news story. The evolution of extended television news coverage happened overnight in that open field in San Marino.
Throughout the long ordeal, the bucket continued to haul up more sloppy mud and water from the depths. There was little new to talk about, and Bill and I felt very much alone…so little was happening that it was hard to imagine anyone could be watching.
[After many, many hours we] moved a camera into position, [and I was told] over my earphone that there was an important announcement next to the rescue site. A small crowd of somber rescue workers walked towards the camera. [A] family physician, Dr. A. Hansen, stopped in front of the camera and spoke to the crowd.
“Ladies and Gentlemen, Kathy is dead and has been dead for a long time. The family wishes to thank one and all for your heroic efforts to try to save their child …”
Tired, dirty, beaten men cried. Sandhogs with forty and fifty hours of constant work behind them wept openly. Rescuers stood silent, heads bowed, unwilling to accept the news. The crowd of thousands was stunned at the loss.
It was several hours before they brought up Kathy’s body, but the broadcast was over. There was no reason to stay. The volunteers had tried to beat time and save a little girl, but failed. Bill and I were on the air for twenty-seven and a half hours of continuous broadcasting. Viewers watched the entire drama unfold and suffered the poignant moment when they were told that Kathy was dead. The only solace was the fact that she had probably died shortly after falling into the well, and likely hadn’t suffered long in her prison. It was especially difficult for the men who had tried so hard to save her. They had given their all for a little girl they never knew but now would never forget.
A lifetime of tremendous broadcasting. Thank you, Stan.