Early last Thursday morning, with the sun rising behind him and reflecting brilliantly on the 1,350-foot-high white aluminum monolith before him, George Willig began climbing the 110 stories of the South Tower of New York City's World Trade Center. Only one skyscraper in the world is higher, the 1,454-foot Sears building in Chicago. After Willig was about 25 feet up, he cast off an all-weather parka he had been wearing to conceal the climbing equipment he carried on a sling over one shoulder. The parka floated down like a parachute, into the hands of Jery Hewitt, who, along with George's 22-year-old brother Steve, had seen the climber off.
Security guards spotted George from the building's plaza. "I saw one, two, a few more, then all of a sudden there was a whole bunch of cops, maybe 20," said Steve. "They started yelling at George, calling him crazy, telling him he was going to kill himself."
"Hey! Crazy man! Get down here right now!" shouted one of the guards. Willig heard him, stopped climbing for a moment, leaned back in his harness and looked down. His reply floated to the ground as his parka had moments earlier. "I'm not coming down," George yelled. "There's only one way to go, and that's up."
It was a reply that can be taken both literally and metaphorically. By now most of the country has been lifted by Willig's accomplishment. On a day off from work for "personal business," Willig successfully scaled the northeast corner of the South Tower, solo, no ropes or belay to aid or protect him, relying entirely on a climbing device he had fabricated himself, designed specifically to fit into the aluminum channels that run up the sides of the building and hold window washers' scaffolds in place. To Willig the climb was a personal challenge met and satisfied, a mountain conquered: no more. But it was more, more than a feat, more than a stunt. It was a triumph of human spirit.
June 5, 1977
The night before the climb Willig had slept fitfully, even awakened twice in a sweat. At 5 a.m., after a breakfast of steak and eggs and water, he left his apartment in Queens, climbed into Hewitt's pickup truck, and together they drove to George's parents' house, where they picked up Steve. They arrived at the World Trade Center at 6:20, and minutes later George was strapping on his climbing harness in the plaza between the twin towers. As he prepared to hitch himself into the runners, a maintenance man walked by. George smiled nonchalantly and said, "Hi, how ya doin'?" trying to divert attention from the rope dangling out of the back of his parka like an untucked undershirt. The maintenance man smiled and said hello right back.
Willig had been planning the climb for more than a year. On four previous occasions, all late at night, he had slipped into the plaza and tested his homemade climbing device—a variation of a standard climbing aid called an ascendeur.
Once he actually climbed a few feet up the side of the building and was caught in the act by a security guard. He talked his way out of trouble by claiming to be an architectural engineering student testing a safety device for window washers. Willig's ascendeurs fitted precisely into the channel; connected to them were nylon slings, resembling stirrups, into which he slid his feet. When there was no weight on the ascendeurs, Willig could slide them freely up the runner. As he put his weight on one foot, the ascendeur expanded and gripped firmly into the runner by friction. Willig would lift one foot, bending his knee, slide the ascendeur up as high as his arm could reach, put the weight back on the foot and create a solid step up; then he would repeat the maneuver with the other foot. "It was like climbing a rope ladder," he says, "except my hands and feet were moving together."
Willig wore a chest harness attached to a seat harness, which provided stability and the freedom to dangle his arms and legs whenever he needed to rest. In his backpack he carried two complete backup systems: one a duplicate of the ascendeurs he was using, the other of an earlier design. He also carried a bolt-on device to secure himself to a runner in case of emergency. "I did some calculations and figured my ascendeurs would stand a minimum of 1,500 pounds without breaking," he says, "but I just wanted to be ready."
None of these devices so much as scratched the surface of the building; in fact, Willig straightened some bent runners along the way by gently tapping them with a spare ascendeur he toted in his backpack.
Willig, 27, creates toys for the Ideal Toy Co.; before that, he designed surgical instruments for the Ark Research Co. He built his ascendeurs in the machine shop at Ark and refined them at Ideal after working hours. "The biggest challenge came from designing the ascendeurs," he says. "The climb itself was not particularly difficult; rock climbing is a lot more scary because it's so problematical and precarious. I had solid footing all the way up the building, and my route was predetermined, so I had no decisions to make. That's what's so difficult about rock climbing. When those challenges are gone, a climb is easy."
"Things worked really smooth from the moment he started," said Steve (who was married three days after the climb). "George was stepping right up the side of the building. But then the cops came and they took me and Jery and Randy [George's girl friend Randy Zeidberg, 24, who had arrived moments after the ascent began] down to the Port Authority Police Station in the basement of the building." A couple of minutes later they brought down Ron Digiovanni, a friend of Willig's, who had ballooned over Manhattan last December. Digiovanni had arrived in the plaza when Willig was on the third story and had shouted, "Go, George, go!" For that he was apprehended as an accomplice.
"The Port Authority cops were running around like chickens with no heads. Not one of them knew what to do," said Steve. "Then this guy came in and said, 'You're all under arrest,' and they had us fill out this stack of forms. Then they fingerprinted us three times each—once for the city, once for the state, and once for the FBI. After that they handcuffed Jery and Ron to a safe, and Randy and I were handcuffed to a chair. Pretty soon they deduced I was George's brother, and they asked me, 'Is George sane? Is he doing this for any political purposes? Is he going to wave signs or something? Is he doing it for a commercial reason?' I told them he was doing it for his own satisfaction, no other reason, and that he was as sane as I was, which I think confused them.
"So we were sitting there chained together, kind of having a good time, but frustrated because we couldn't watch George—they didn't unchain us until after George made it—and someone came in and said George was at the 25th floor. We knew then they'd never get him."
By this time huge crowds had gathered in the plaza and surrounding streets, network television coverage had alerted the country and helicopters with cameramen on board were swarming around the building. At that point the police, too, could see George knew what he was doing. "Some of them were still being hard-nosed," says Steve, "and saying he was crazy, but one of them said, 'This guy's a genius; he's got the whole thing figured out down to the slightest detail.' "
The only hitch in Willig's climb came when he reached the 60th floor. At that point a scaffold, which had been lowered from the top down the adjoining face of the tower, met him. On it were two policemen, one from the Port Authority, the other a New York City officer trained in suicide-rescue operations. Willig was afraid they were going to rescue him against his will.
"They were coming down my way," he said later, "so I decided I'd swing over to the next channel to be out of reach." He partially uncoiled the 120-foot nylon climbing rope that he carried over his shoulder for exactly this sort of eventuality, attached it to an ascendeur, removed the two foot slings from the ascendeurs in the channel, and performed a maneuver known in climbing as a pendulum. That is, he swung out and away from the building, suspended only by the rope, to another runner, where he was out of reach of the policemen. As he swung, his shadow suddenly dropped down the side of the building and the crowd below let out a collective gasp, thinking the shadow was his falling body.
"I hooked myself in this other channel away from them," said Willig, "and I started climbing up it until they shouted to me that they really weren't there to pull me off. They told me if I was tired, I could swing over to them and get on the scaffold, but if I wanted to keep going, I could. I told them I wasn't tired and that I felt much safer where I was. Then I took the stuff out of the second channel and swung back over to the original one.
"One of the cops said, 'What are you, crazy?' But when I assured him I knew what I was doing, he joked, 'We're going to have to stop meeting like this.' After that we had a lot of fun. We joked around, we talked, we looked at the sights, we commented on them—pretty plain conversation."
At 10:05 a.m., 3½ hours after he began, admittedly very excited by now, but not tired, Willig lifted himself over a ledge at the top and crawled, feet first, into an inspection hatch on the roof. He was none the worse for wear, except for blistered hands and insteps. He was greeted by policemen, who congratulated him. requested his autograph, then handcuffed him and served him with a summons for disorderly conduct, criminal trespass and scaling a building without a permit. In addition, it was announced that the city was going to sue Willig for $250,000 for the trouble and expense he had put it to. The next day Willig met with Mayor Abraham Beame, who settled for a fine of $1.10—a penny for each of the tower's 110 stories. In return, Willig readily agreed not to reveal the details of his climbing apparatus, to forestall imitators from attempting similar climbs.
Of course, Willig was asked why he did it. He responded with the expected answer, the classic and clichéd "Because it's there"—which at the time was the easiest way to reply to a simple question that in truth has such a complex answer. Another reply might have been what Louis Armstrong said when asked to define jazz, "If you don't know, I can't tell you."
Nonetheless, Thursday night, before he took his phone off the hook and went to bed at about 1 a.m., Willig tried again to answer the question. "A couple of times during the year I planned this climb I thought. 'What the heck is in me that makes me want to do this?' I guess it's just a love of excitement and adventure, an appetite for action. Maybe it has a lot to do with asserting my life, just to myself—feeling more alive.
"I did wonder, at times, if I should go through with it. But I never at all seriously considered not doing it, never from the first time I got the idea."
"George did what he dreamed of doing for a year," said his girl friend Randy. "He would get shivers and goosebumps every time he thought of it. He'd go down and just stare at the World Trade Center all the time." "When George says he's going to do something, it's almost a fait accompli," says Mrs. George Willig, the climber's mother, a remarkable woman in her own right. She has raised six children while working the last 13 years. Two months ago she became a grandmother and next January will receive her B.S. in accounting from St. John's. "George would mention the climb every now and then, but I had no idea he was working on it with such a single-minded purpose. He told me he was going to make the climb a couple of days before he did it. and I tried not to think of it too much."
Mrs. Willig never considered trying to talk George out of the attempt. "Knowing my son, knowing how much he likes to accept challenges and do things out of the ordinary, it would have been a waste of time," she said. "Besides, he's 27; he's not a child.
"This sounds like a contradiction, but as much as he likes to do dangerous things, he's very careful about them. People have asked me if he got hurt a lot as a child, but he hasn't had many accidents. It isn't what you do, it's how you do it. and George is a good example of that principle. I think his whole family is rather proud of him."
More than his family has taken pride in Willig. The country immediately adopted him as a folk hero, viewing his climb as an expression of its own yearnings and as a reaffirmation of the splendid challenges that, when successfully met, ennoble the human spirit.
All George Willig wanted to do was, to use a climber's expression, "go for it." which may be what life is all about. Along the way he scraped a raw nerve and the country twitched, but in admiration, not pain.