Aug. 7, 1974: French tightrope artist Philippe Petit performs an unauthorized high-wire walk between the Twin Towers.
Whether you take Philippe Petit’s tightrope walk between the Twin Towers as art, daredevilry, or madness, it’s hard to deny the awe it inspired. The French stuntman’s larger-than-life story has already made it to the big screen once, in the Oscar-winning 2008 documentary Man on Wire.
The elements of Petit’s most famous achievement are inherently dramatic, of course, in nearly every way. On this day, Aug. 7, in 1974, he walked between the just-erected towers of the World Trade Center, performing acrobatic feats on an inch-thick cable 1,350 feet above the ground — without a safety net.
Here, he told his story on The Guardian:
“I started wire-walking when I was 16. My friends were happy I was pursuing this unusual way of life. My family was more reserved and didn’t directly support me or, seemingly, understand me.
“I read about the construction of the World Trade Center in a magazine in a dentist’s office. At that moment I decided I was going to walk between the towers. I remember every moment of that long quest, and every moment of the walk. Even 41 years later I have this strange ability to relive it almost instantly.
“At the time, I didn’t think about the walk itself; in the eight months before it, I practised once, on a poorly rigged wire. My main focus was how to install a cable without permission. It was my dream and the closer I got to it the more I was compelled to do it, rather than feeling doubts.
“I arrived the afternoon of the day before, planning to go to the roof as it got dark and rig all night. But we were delayed, I in my tower and my friend in the other, for hours because we were hiding from guards. I was terrified of getting caught, and felt like the policeman was a foot away, waiting to pounce. We arrived on the roof three hours later than planned, and only had half the night to rig.
“When I took that first step on the wire, I tried not to make it vibrate because I hadn’t been able to check the anchor point in the other tower. After a few steps I realised it wasn’t well rigged but thought, “It’s safe enough.” Even though the crowd was a quarter of a mile below, I could hear the clamour, joyful clapping and yelling. My almost invisible audience was part of the performance for me.
“There were several photographers – this is from the one I call “the traitor” because he swore he wouldn’t bring a camera to the roof. It was taken at a moment when I wasn’t in a great position on the wire. Usually I walk like a dancer, looking at the horizon and gliding, so it’s not my favourite picture.
“I didn’t plan to cross eight times. After that first crossing, I rested on the wire against the face of the north tower, daydreaming and savouring the moment, and something made me stand up and walk again. I danced, I sat down, I lay down, I looked down… It’s dangerous for a wire-walker to look down but I knew I would never again be in that position – literally. By that time thousands of people had gathered.
“The police were shouting: “We’ll cut the wire, we’ll take the tension off the wire, we’ll get you with a helicopter” – all things that would have instantly killed me. I didn’t think they could be that senseless, but at the same time I believe police often do things they shouldn’t. Also, I’d been trespassing long enough. I felt the gods of the wire had allowed me to trespass and I shouldn’t push it. So I thought: “This is my last crossing – let’s make it a beautiful, theatrical exit.”
“On the last step, as I gave myself up to the police, it started to rain. They were very angry. It took them an entire afternoon to process and get rid of me. They were rough, but some asked for my autograph.
“Images of me walking the wire that day ended up all over the world. There was not one newspaper that didn’t put it on their front page. It was remarkable.”