Photo: © 2008 Jean-Louis Blondeau – All rights reserved
It had the character of great art – like opera or better, ballet: stepping out on a wire almost inexpressibly high above the streets of one of the world’s great cities. It was a long-awaited point of departure and the beginning of an improvised performance as spiritually fulfilling for the man who completed it as it was dizzying for those standing agape as witnesses. It was the first of eight crossings between what were then the highest buildings on earth, and New York was just waking up.
August 7, 1974. When a young Philippe Petit high wire-walked across the yawning gulf that lay between the Twin Towers of the then still unfinished World Trade Centre, he couldn’t have realised quite how etched in history his act was to become. Doubtless, he had some expectations. But who could have foreseen the fate of the structures that stood as his stage in an event so cataclysmic it would ensure Petit’s illegal but harmless self-styled “coup” was remembered all the more nostalgically.
Petit had trained himself as a wire walker, but like all creative experimenters, forsook his learned techniques – the somersault, the unicycle – in pursuit of higher aesthetic goals. When he learned of the Twin Towers, he vowed he would accomplish his masterstroke. The French street performer flew over from Paris – where he had already wire walked between the steeples of Notre Dame – and with the help of friends and collaborators, dreams turned to often times anarchic preparations.
Months of reconnaissance work during the final stages of the Towers’ construction included spying in various guises, with Petit even posing as a journalist to interview workers. The evening before the target day broke, Petit and his team stole in and worked frantically through the night, carrying up the heavy steel cable – all that would lie between elation and downfall. With charming simplicity, a bow and arrow together with fishing line and rope were used to eventually send the wire across the void.
Speaking in an interview with BBC TV, Petit described his experience:
“I was stepping into another world, literally into the unknown, and I was an explorer at heart… I believe when one is exploring a totally new world, one has to be on the lookout for the monsters who come and devour you, and they were the monster of the void and the monster of the distance and the wind… So I felt I had to be very strong in the fragile world that I was stepping into, except I had a very strong certainty that I will do the last step as I was doing the first one.”
In the space of 45 minutes Philippe Petit had made history in his own unique celebration of life. When he gave himself up to the police assembled on the roof, he was pushed down the stairs in what he later claimed was the most dangerous part of the stunt. Whether “dancing” – as one officer described it – on a one-inch wire a 1,368 feet up is really less precarious than a little rough treatment from the Port Authority Police Department sounds unlikely. Yet this is a man of such poise that few can doubt his word – and even fewer forgive him some poetic licence.