Sept. 24, 2001
Sept. 24, 2001

Table of Contents
Sept. 24, 2001

The Week That Sports Stood Still


Philippe Petit has no television. When a friend phoned with the
unspeakable news on Sept. 11, he ran to a neighbor's house and
saw the World Trade Center disintegrate into dust. "My
reaction?" says Petit, exhaling deeply at his rural retreat in
upstate New York. "Please quote me in full. First, of course,
profound sorrow at the still-unfinished human tragedy. And
second, I felt--with the collapse of the towers--like I had lost
my child."

This is an article from the Sept. 24, 2001 issue Original Layout

His voice is inflected with anguish and the accent of his native
France. Petit speaks, like so many bereaved, in the present
tense, as if the buildings were still standing. "I know those
towers better than anybody in the world," says the 52-year-old.
"I studied them for nine years, legally and illegally, before and
after my walk. That's what I call it, 'my walk.' It was nine
years from the moment I got the idea to the moment I illegally
strung a cable between the twin giants. In that time I studied, I
practiced--and I dreamed."

Petit forever became a folk hero on the morning of Aug. 7, 1974,
when he stepped off the roof of the south tower and onto a cable
less than an inch wide that stretched, like a taut guitar string,
131 feet to the roof of the north tower. It was rigged there,
surreptitiously, with the aid of accomplices disguised as
carpenters and deliverymen, with whom Petit had staked out the
rooftops for months. For 45 minutes that summer morning--1,350
feet above a pedestrian plaza--Petit walked the length of the
cable seven times. He wore black slippers, a V-neck sweater and
an unalloyed expression of joy. His smile was broadcast around
the globe. "I wanted to offer to Manhattan, America and the world
an image of the impossible," recalls Petit. "I wanted to make a
statement to move mountains and to show that the impossible does
not exist."

The audacity of his act left onlookers agog, for something like
the opposite reason that viewers sat agape last week. The
hijackers reminded us what human beings are capable of. In a
small--but happy--way, so too did Petit. Crowds cheered him as
crimson-faced authorities idly threatened him with jail. "The
police were very, very angry with me," he says, "because they
didn't know how to approach a poet dancing in the sky."

He had given goose bumps to Americans in the endgame days of the
Watergate scandal. And so Petit was formally "sentenced," in a
court of law, to perform a show for children in Central Park,
where he walked a wire strung between a tree and Belvedere
Castle. In lieu of a fine he was given a lifetime pass to the
public observation deck atop the south tower. And he was
eventually appointed artist-in-residence at Manhattan's
magnificent St. John the Divine Cathedral, where he still works
most of the year.

"I am not a daredevil or a high-wire artist," explains Petit. "I
am only an actor who uses the high-wire as a stage. Daredevils
use the wire to demonstrate power or courage, but I am a man of
theater. As a young man I saw the plans for those towers, and
they represented for me a beautiful, poetic dream."

To many others, too, the towers were emblematic of man's
aspirations. Among the crew that raised World Trade Center Towers
1 and 2 was a Queens construction worker named Owen J. Quinn, who
leaped from the north tower on July 22, 1975, free-falling for 50
stories before deploying a parachute and alighting safely in the
plaza. He fluttered to earth in a football jersey whose name and
number read MATTHEW 19:26. That is to say, "With God, all things
are possible."

Two years later George (the Human Fly) Willig, who was from
Moriches, N.Y., climbed the exterior of the south tower, from
street level to roof, by slotting homemade handles into the
window-washing tracks that ran vertically the length of each
building. Willig's mother, Therese, was a 19-year-old secretary
on the 79th floor of the Empire State Building on July 28, 1945,
when an Army B-25 bomber crashed into the skyscraper, killing 13
people. But that is mere coincidence. When Willig was asked at
the end of his 3 1/2-hour ascent why he did it, he replied, "I
wanted to get to the top." An echo of Hillary's explanation:
"Because it's there."

And now it is not, nor are thousands of souls who perished with
it. "How to talk of this," says Petit, contemplating the
catastrophe, "except to say it is the illustration of the word

Owen J. Quinn was, at last report, living happily on the Jersey
shore. The answering machine at Willig's home in Woodland Hills,
Calif., says he is away until Sept. 19. And then there is Petit,
who has remained for 27 years in the city (and country) he has
come to love.

So it is that the Frenchman had frequent opportunity to use his
lifetime pass to the rooftop observation deck. Indeed, he visited
the top of the south tower twice in the past month, most recently
a fortnight before the attacks, with his brother and his
brother's children. He will choose to remember the building--and
its identical twin--as an edifice that inspired the best in human
nature, rather than its polar opposite.

"There is a spot in the observation deck where you can face the
other tower and look down to the plaza below," says Petit, still
speaking in the present tense. "In recent years I would often
stare out from that spot and have to convince myself--convince
myself--that I had made that walk, that the impossible does not
exist. Because I was finding it unbelievable that for those
minutes, years ago, I had been out there on a wire, dancing in
the sky."

B/W PHOTO: JEAN LOUIS BONDEAU SkywalkerFor 45 minutes in 1974 Petit traversed the chasm between the towers seven times on a wire less than an inch wide.