City / Culture: Sixty Years Before the Chilean Miners, A Rescue Attempt That Changed Us

The recent successful rescue of the Chilean miners had a happy ending. The Kathy Fiscus crisis of 1949 in San Marino did not. Jeremy Rosenberg asks historian William Deverell to get his reactions to the Chilean rescue, and to inquire about parallels with the Fiscus episode.

Rescuers try to reach Kathy Fiscus, who fell down a well in 1949. Image courtesy Bill Deverell

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Ed. note: Part Two of the City / Culture Bike + Planning Interview with Mike Lydon will run next Friday, 10/29/10.

In 1949, a three-year old girl named Kathy Fiscus was playing with her siblings in a field in San Marino, California – a city near Pasadena now best known as home to the Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens. Tragically, Fiscus fell into an open hole – a disused well. For days, she remained alive, but trapped. Would-be rescuers, neighbors, family members, spectators with their own agendas, and the news media rushed en masse to the Southern California site.

Sound familiar? The recent successful rescue of Los 33, the men who survived 69 days 2,000 feet down in that collapsed Chilean mine, had a happy ending. The Fiscus crisis did not. Last week, City / Culture checked in with William Deverell to get his reactions to the Chilean rescue, and to inquire about any parallels he sees – or does not – with the Fiscus episode.

Deverell is a history professor and the Director of the Huntington-USC Institute on California and the West. He delivers a remarkable lecture* – and presumably still a forthcoming book – titled, Little Girl Lost: The Kathy Fiscus Tragedy. Here’s what Deverell had to say:

City/Culture:: I take it that you watched at least some of the coverage of the Chilean miners. If so, what were you thinking about while you watched?

Bill Deverell: I read more about it than I watched, given a TV-less household. But I was transfixed by the alpha and omega moments of this – when they discovered all 33 of them alive and when they began to bring each one up. The scenes of relief and reunion at the top – as well as the exultation of the rescuers themselves – were exceedingly moving. And I did think of Kathy Fiscus – especially given that she was (for a brief heartbreaking moment) able to talk to those at the well’s mouth.

City/Culture: The Chilean rescue was, incredibly, joyously, successful. Kathy Fiscus, sadly, didn’t make it. but what are some of the similarities between the two episodes? What’s changed these past sixty years and what’s fundamentally the same?

Bill Deverell: The same: the terror associated with an underground abyss. Tomb and catacombs. The fascination with the fate of those underground; even the sense (how you’d prove this, I don’t know) that the world, region, state, neighborhood needs the redemptive catharsis of safety and reunion – that’s the difference in Fiscus, of course, that makes all the difference. All that work and only tragedy at the bottom of the hole.

City/Culture: You’ve spoken – if memory serves – about how the Fiscus episode was more or less the invention of live television news. I seem to recall you noting the irony of that live “news” consisted of cameras filming, ceaselessly, the area surrounding the top of a hole. In short – the opposite of “news.” Thanks to current technology or otherwise, how did media coverage differ – or not – this time around?

Bill Deverell: It’s probably hardly comparable, right? Except for the single driving similarity: a live feed (or close to it: the Fiscus event isn’t exactly that) with media as the conduit from there to us. But the Chilean event is especially remarkable for its sheer sophistication: mining, medicine, psychology, etc. Amazing. Fiscus looked more technologically savvy that it was – the hole that she’s eventually [brought up] with was dug largely by hand. The heavy machinery hole was probably just a bad idea.

City/Culture:: What about religion? I recall that the massive crowd gathered around the Fiscus site had at least in part the feel of a religious revival. In Chile, the miners were praying together underground, and some immediately after emerging from the capsule. What struck you as the same or different from the Fiscus times?

Bill Deverell: Miners can be an especially religious lot, and I think the Chileans proved that, at least in the most public expressions we saw. Kathy’s church was just south of the hole. The rector baptized and buried her. The expressions of group religious faith and hope seemed quite similar to me. But I admit to not knowing any of the details in Chile.

City/Culture: A teaser for one of your lectures about Fiscus notes that you were to, “pose some questions and ideas about how post-World War II California saw itself and was in turn seen by the nation.” What’s the short version of that answer? What did the whole episode reveal about ourselves, and our image nationally, and what might be learned by and about Chile?

Bill Deverell: It would be great to bottle the redemptive and happy “YES!” of their rescue. But it will fade. Human nature will rise up in terms of amnesia and moving on, and even in its less laudatory ways – miners will be exploited, some willingly, others not. Recriminations will surface. Heroes, too.

I think Fiscus is a turning point in post-war American feelings about family, California, even grief. But that’s a hunch. Just because I think it was doesn’t make it so. But I’m not done with the event yet: it exerts a powerful hold on me that the Chilean rescue – wonderful, astonishing – only exacerbates.

City/Culture: Related, perhaps: Among the indelible images of the recent weeks was the singing of the Chilean national anthem by the rescuers, rescued, and the country’s president. What role did such pride, or ‘nationalism,’ play during the Fiscus days?

Bill Deverell: I think national pride, miners’ pride, the solidarity of disaster and the hope of rescue all played big, big roles. I think Chile is extraordinarily proud as a nation of this rescue (and the role of Americans and others in it seems real, too), and I think they’ve earned it.

*Disclosure: Jeremy Rosenberg co-organized this lecture series, and also does some work for USC.

Read past City / Culture columns here. Email the columnist at lathinktank [at] gmail [dot] org.

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