Thursday, August 6, 2009

35th Anniversary - World Trade Center Wire Walker

"Don't worry about what you can't control" is what Philippe Petit thought about the wind at the Word Trade Center towers.

Today is the 35th anniversary of Phillip Petit's world famous 1974 World Trade Center tightrope walk.

Philippe Petit (born August 13, 1949) is a French high wire artist who gained fame for his high-wire walk between the Twin Towers (WTC) in New York City on August 7, 1974.

For his feat (that he referred to as "le coup", he used a 450-pound cable and a custom-made 26-foot long, 55-pound balancing pole.
Petit was first inspired to attempt what he called his "coup" on the Twin Towers while he sat in his dentist's office in Paris in 1968. In a magazine, he came upon an article about the as-yet-unconstructed buildings, along with an illustration of the model. He became obsessed with the towers, collecting articles on them whenever possible.

The 'artistic crime of the century' took six years of planning, during which Petit learned everything he could about the buildings, taking into account such problems as the swaying of the towers because of wind, and how to rig the steel cable across the 140-foot (43 m) gap between the towers (at a height of 1,368 ft (417.0 m)). He traveled to New York on several occasions to make first-hand observations. Since the towers were still under construction, Philippe and a NY-based photographer went up in a helicopter to make aerial photographs of the WTC.

Petit sneaked into the towers several times, hiding on the roof and other areas in the unfinished towers, in order to get a sense of what type of security measures were in place. Using his own observations and photographs, Petit was able to make a scale model of the towers to help him design the rigging he needed to prepare for the wirewalk. He made fake identification cards for himself and his collaborators (claiming that they were contractors who were installing an electrified fence on the roof) to gain access to the towers. Prior to this, to make it easier to get into the buildings, Petit carefully observed the clothes worn by construction workers and the kinds of tools they carried. He also took note of the clothing of businessmen so that he could blend in with them when he tried to enter the buildings. He observed what time the workers arrived and left, so he could determine when he would have roof access. As the target date of his "coup" approached, he claimed to be a journalist with a French architecture magazine so that he could gain permission to interview the workers on the roof. The Port Authority allowed Petit to conduct the interviews, which he used as a pretext to make more observations. He was once caught by a police officer on the roof, and his hopes to do the high wire walk were dampened, but he eventually regained the confidence to proceed.

On the night of August 6, 1974, Petit and his crew were able to ride in a freight elevator to the 104th floor with their equipment, and to store this equipment just nineteen steps from the roof. In order to pass the cable across the void, Petit and his crew had settled on using a bow and arrow. They first shot across a fishing line, and then passed larger and larger ropes across the space between the towers until they were able to pass the 450-pound steel cable across. Two cavalettis (guy lines) anchored to other points on the roof were used to stabilize the cable and keep the swaying of the wire to a minimum. For the first time in the history of the Twin Towers, they were joined.

On August 7, 1974, shortly after 7:15 a.m., Petit stepped off the South Tower and onto his 3/4" 6×19 IWRC (independent wire rope core) steel cable. He walked the wire for 45 minutes, making eight crossings between the towers, a quarter mile above the sidewalks of Manhattan. In addition to walking, he sat on the wire, gave knee salutes and, while lying on the wire, spoke with a gull circling above his head.

As soon as Petit was observed by witnesses on the ground, the Port Authority Police Department dispatched officers to the roof to take him into custody. One of the officers, Sgt. Charles Daniels, later reported his experience:

I observed the tightrope 'dancer'—because you couldn't call him a 'walker'—approximately halfway between the two towers. And upon seeing us he started to smile and laugh and he started going into a dancing routine on the high wire....And when he got to the building we asked him to get off the high wire but instead he turned around and ran back out into the middle....He was bouncing up and down. His feet were actually leaving the wire and then he would resettle back on the wire again....Unbelievable really....Everybody was spellbound in the watching of it.

Petit was warned by his friend on the South Tower that a police helicopter would come to pick him off the wire unless he got off. Rain had begun to fall, and Petit decided he had taken enough risks, so he decided to give himself up to the police waiting for him on the South Tower. He was arrested once he stepped off the wire. Provoked by his taunting behaviour while on the wire, police handcuffed him behind his back and roughly pushed him down a flight of stairs. This he later described as the most dangerous part of the stunt.

His audacious high wire performance made headlines around the world. When asked why he did the stunt, Petit would say "When I see three oranges, I juggle; when I see two towers, I walk."

The immense news coverage and public appreciation of Petit's high wire walk resulted in all formal charges relating to his walk being dropped. The court did however "sentence" Petit to perform a show for the children of New York City, which he transformed into another high-wire walk, in Central Park above Belvedere Lake (which has now become Turtle Pond.) Petit was also presented with a lifetime pass to the Twin Towers' Observation Deck by the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey. He signed a steel beam close to the point where he began his walk.

Petit's high-wire walk is credited with bringing the then rather unpopular Twin Towers much needed attention and even affection. Up to that point, critics such as technology historian Lewis Mumford had regarded them as ugly and utilitarian. The landlords were having trouble renting out all of their office space.

The documentary film Man on Wire by UK director James Marsh, about Petit's 1974 WTC performance, won both the World Cinema Jury and Audience awards at the Sundance Film Festival 2008. The film also won awards at the 2008 Full Frame Documentary Film Festival in Durham, N.C. and won the Academy Award for Best Documentary.

Petit has made dozens of public high-wire performances in his career; in 1986 he re-enacted the crossing of the Niagara River by Blondin for an Imax film. In 1989, to celebrate the 200th anniversary of the French Revolution, president Jacques Chirac permitted him to walk a wire strung from the ground, at the Place du Trocadero, to the second stage of the Eiffel Tower.

He is one of the Artists-in-Residence at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City. He currently lives in Woodstock, New York.

From "New York, the Unknown City"

After groups on each tower assempled the support structure, they had to find a way of getting the heavy walk wire across the 140 foot gap separating the towers. The answer fit the romantic poetry of the entire stunt. An arrow attached to a fishing line was shot from a bow from one building to the other, and then they simply towed the cable across.

Despite his years of planning, Petit was resigned to the fate of physics. To be walked upon, the cable had to be stretched to a tension of 3.5 tons. But because the buildings were designed to sway with the wind, Petit knew that a bad breeze would cause his wire to rip apart and send him to his death. He decided not to worry about what he couldn't control.

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