A memorable event in the life of the World Trade Center came in the summer of 1974, while the still-unfinished (and largely unrented) towers were courting financial disaster and facing a barrage of architectural and social criticism. In the course of a single morning, the unexpected -- and illegal -- actions of a daring young Frenchman and a few of his confederates would do more to change public opinion about the troubled billion-dollar project than anything else in its first years of existence.
The episode originated six years earlier, in 1968, when an 18-year-old street performer named Philippe Petit, waiting in a dentist's office in Paris with a toothache, came across an article about the twin towers, along with an illustration of the project in model form. Suddenly, a daring, almost inconceivable thought came into his head.
"They called me," he later explained. "I didn't choose them. Anything that is giant and manmade strikes me in an awesome way and calls me. I could secretly put my wire between the highest towers in the world. It was something that had to be done, and I couldn't explain it... it was a calling of the romantic type."
A Dream Is Born
Feigning a sneeze, Petit ripped the page from the newspaper and hastily left the office, prolonging his dental agony for several more days. "But what was it to have a toothache for another week," he later recalled, "when what I had now in my chest was a dream?"
For the next six years, Petit patiently nurtured his dream, perfecting his skills as a high-wire artist and learning everything he could about the World Trade Center. In January 1974, now 24 years old, he flew to New York City for the first time in his life to put his daring plan into action. After months scouting the towers, including posing as a journalist to interview Port Authority executive Guy Tozzoli, he set to work on the evening of Tuesday, August 6. While one group of colleagues made its way up the north tower, Petit and two friends slipped up to the top of the south tower, carrying their concealed equipment, including a disassembled balancing pole, wire for rigging, 250 feet of one-inch braided steel cable, and a bow and arrow.
Stepping Into the Void
It took all night to complete the rigging, securing the steel cable a quarter of a mile in the sky across the 130-foot gap separating the towers. Wall Street was just beginning to come to life when, at a little past seven on the morning of August 7, 1974, Philippe Petit stepped onto the wire stretched out across the void.
On the street below, people stopped in their tracks -- first by the tens, then by the hundreds and thousands -- staring up in wonder and disbelief at the tiny figure walking on air between the towers. Sgt. Charles Daniels of the Port Authority Police Department, dispatched to the roof to bring Petit down, looked on in helpless amazement. "I observed the tightrope 'dancer' -- because you couldn't call him a 'walker' -- approximately halfway between the two towers," he later reported. "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... [E]verybody was spellbound in the watching of it."
To the delight of the Port Authority, the exploit made front-page news around the world, and Petit himself became an instant folk hero. Thanks to the immense outpouring of public adulation for his performance, all formal charges against him were dropped, and the 24 year old was "sentenced" to perform his high-wire act for a group of children in Central Park.
Soon after his walk, the Port Authority presented him with a free lifetime pass to the observation deck atop the south tower -- where he was asked to sign his name on a steel beam overlooking the vast canyon where he had danced among the clouds. In the years to come, he would often return to the breathtaking perch where he had captured the attention of the entire world, and, in the space of just 45 minutes, accomplished a seemingly impossible feat: making two of the tallest, largest and most imposing structures in the world seem suddenly endearing and friendly.
My American Experience
How did you first learn of the September 11 attacks? Do you remember what you were doing when the Twin Towers fell? What did it mean to you? Do you have specific memories of that day?