On the morning of August 7, 1974, the newly constructed World Trade Center towered high and mighty…an object of scorn and ridicule. The “packaging that the Empire State Building was delivered in” was the favorite joke of many critics when referring to the structure; dismissed as a building devoid of any aesthetic form, shamelessly serving only a capitalistic function.
New York City was in the midst of the world’s first oil crisis and about to descend into its worst financial recession; this added fuel to the derision and contempt from a public who saw the World Trade Center as a symbol of corporate greed and excess and as a mockery to its troubled situation.
On this particular summer morning, however, the World Trade Center was attracting an attention that wasn’t scornful nor derisive. Crowds of people (first numbering in the tens, then hundreds and eventually thousands) were gazing upward to view a small figure high above them walking and dancing along a cable suspended between the North and South Towers. His carefree, frolicsome, death-defying moves along the cable held everyone far below captivated. The small figure was Philippe Petit, a 24-year-old French street performer now high-wire walker; his perilous moment was in the planning for six years.
In 1968, the then 18-year old Petit was suffering from a toothache and was impatiently leafing through a magazine while in the waiting room of his dentist. He came across a article that featured a story on the construction of the World Trade Center complex, the tallest and largest in the world. The technical design of the construction wasn’t what interested Petit but rather the sheer height of the project’s two main buildings: the Twin Towers (Towers One and Two) as they came to be known. Petit instantly vowed to himself that one day he would walk between these towers and promptly embarked on his dream. Pretending to sneeze to muffle the sound, he tore the article out of the magazine and swiftly left the office, his toothache forgotten. The Towers “called me,” Petit would claim over and over again, “I didn’t choose them…it was a calling of the romantic type.”
As the structures rose, so did Petit’s skill on the high-wire, arduously and tirelessly he practiced and trained; and when the World Trade Center reached completion, he had mastered the high-wire along with his study of every aspect of the Twin Towers. In January 1974, he arrived in New York City with a group of friends and colleagues and immediately set about implementing his hair-raising designs.
After months of scouting the Towers, posing as a journalist to interview Guy Tozzoli, head of the Port Authority (ubiquitous owner of the World Trade Center), Petit and two of his associates gained access to the top of the South Tower, while another group made its way up the North Tower, with their concealed equipment: a disassembled balancing pole, rigging wire, 250- feet of one-inch braided steel cable and a bow and arrow.
They worked through the entire night, stretching the cable across the 130-foot space separating the Towers, and by 7 a.m. Petit was ready for the soon-to-be legendary walk: the moment Petit had desired for the past six years had finally arrived.
One of the first people to report on Petit as he effortlessly made his way toward the center of the wire was Sgt. Charles Daniels of the Port Authority Police who was dispatched to the scene in an effort to stop him. “I observed the tightrope ‘dancer’–because you couldn’t call him a ‘walker.’ Daniels stated that upon seeing him and other officers he “laughed” and started to go into a “dancing routine.” When he finally reached the North Tower, his walk complete, Petit suddenly turned and happily waltzed the other way. For nearly 45 minutes this spectacle continued while everyone watched spellbound and thrilled; the unknown street performer had made himself famous throughout the world.
Petit was arrested but, due to overwhelming praise and support from the public, all charges against him were dropped. He was instead “sentenced” to perform his high-wire act before a group of children in Central Park. The Port Authority was overjoyed that the young Frenchman had also cast the World Trade Center into a rarely seen favorable light. They had Petit sign his name into a steel beam overlooking the space where he performed his incredible stunt and presented him with a lifetime pass to the South Tower’s observation deck.
Philippe Petit had also accomplished an even more astounding feat: he had single-handedly made “two of the tallest, largest and most imposing structures in the world seem suddenly endearing and friendly.” And that’s how most New Yorkers (including me), and many people in the civilized world, would see the World Trade Center until the morning of its destruction by high-flying psychotics.