High-wire walker mourns towers

Stunt: Philippe Petit drew attention and affection to the World Trade Center by walking a tightrope between the buildings in 1974.

September 27, 2001|By Terril Yue Jones | Terril Yue Jones,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Twenty-seven years ago, tens of thousands of people watched, shocked and transfixed, as Philippe Petit pulled off the performance of his lifetime. On Sept. 11, the man who walked a tightrope strung between New York's World Trade Center towers stood riveted by the same emotions and more, as he watched the twin towers crumble before his eyes.

Petit, who through an ingenuous, clandestine and defiant act long ago helped New Yorkers embrace the stark, square skyscrapers that anchored Manhattan's skyline, immediately felt cut loose.

Years before the towers opened in 1973, Petit first saw an artist's conception of what would be the world's tallest buildings in a French magazine in a dentist's office when he was 16. Spellbound, he drew a line between their rooftops.

Petit's first guerrilla wire walk was at Notre Dame Cathedral in 1971. Then came the Sydney Harbor Bridge in 1973, and the World Trade Center the next year.

He is 11 years into planning his "masterpiece," a walk across the top of the Grand Canyon.

He spent a good part of nine years, mostly in France, practicing and planning the hardware that would be needed for the World Trade Center feat, a dizzying 1,350 feet above ground.

The biggest hurdle was getting the cable across the 140-foot stretch between the towers. Petit and a photographer friend, Jean-Louis Blondeau, mapped out the roofs in a cow pasture in Nevers, on the Loire River in Burgundy, experimenting with different techniques.

In December 1973, Petit arrived in the United States on his mission. During the next eight months he made scores of trips to the towers, often in disguise, measuring, photographing, poking into broom closets. For several days in August 1974, Petit sneaked equipment into the skyscrapers, hiding things in the buildings and on the roofs.

On the afternoon of Aug. 6, he and his accomplices slipped into the buildings and hid out in strategic nooks until nightfall.

Blondeau, using a powerful bow, shot an arrow from one tower rooftop to the other, trailing an invisible fishing line. Feverishly, they pulled a rope over, then a cable, and quickly tightened it to 2,500 pounds of tension.

At 7 a.m. Petit began his historic walk. Back and forth he went, seven times in 45 minutes, using only his pole and the buffalo-skin slippers he makes for himself.

"It was a daydreaming performance, very different from a daredevil who walks across quickly to get into the Guinness Book of Records." (Needless to say, Petit is in the book.) Tens of thousands of astonished commuters paused to watch.

After his World Trade Center escapade, Petit was embraced by New York. He was convicted of trespassing and was ordered to stage a performance in Central Park. He ambled from a lakeside to the top of Belvedere Castle.

These feats helped win over cynical New Yorkers who had long been accustomed to the midtown Empire State Building as the world's tallest and resented the new structures. Petit was given a lifetime VIP pass to the observation deck in the WTC's South Tower and unfailingly took friends and family when they visited. He last set foot in the building one week before both towers were destroyed.

"Let's rebuild them again," he says, "exactly as they were, and I will dance between them again. It would be a magnificent gesture against doom."

Terril Yue Jones is a reporter for the Los Angeles Times, a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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