The man who climbed the World Trade Center recalls the day with
This is an article from the Oct. 15, 2001 issue
George Willig's May 26, 1977, ascent of the south tower of the
World Trade Center has been the great achievement of his life,
so his reaction to the tower's crumbling, which he watched on
television while vacationing in China, comes as some surprise.
"My first impulse was, 'I wish I'd never climbed it,'" says
Willig, 52. "I had this sudden thought that what I did called
attention to the building and humanized it, and if that had
anything to do with making it an appealing target, I was
Willig, who lives in Los Angeles, says that by the time he got
home, eight days after the attack, he had regained his fond
memory of the ascent and come to terms with the fact that his
feat certainly did humanize the Twin Towers. Willig plotted his
stunt for more than a year, constructing a set of steel clamps, a
special harness and other equipment that at 6:30 on what would be
a historic spring morning he wedged into scaffolding tracks on
the northeast corner of the building. By the time a policeman
arrived and shouted for Willig to get down, he was already some
35 feet off the ground. Crowds gathered below, and he could hear
some shouts of encouragement and others of "That guy is nuts!"
It was a sunny day with a gentle breeze, and Willig recalls
feeling more relaxed the higher he went, often pausing to rest in
his harness and take in the scope of his attempt. He was 27 at
the time, and though he'd been making technical rock climbs for
several years, he had never attempted a height anything close to
the tower's 1,350 feet, let alone a face so sheer. "I started
thinking about my life and what led me from being a boy who liked
to climb trees to being a speck on the side of the World Trade
Center," Willig says. "I thought about it for a long time up
there, and I tell you, I found no answers. Who does something
like that? I guess I loved the extravagance of it."
When Willig reached the 66th floor, he came upon a scaffold with
two policemen on it. "We've got to stop meeting like this," one
said. Rather than trying to stop him, the cops offered to give
him a lift to the top. Willig declined and continued his ascent
with the policemen hovering nearby. By now the cops realized that
Willig was on the verge of fame and, 35 floors short of the top,
they asked if he would give them his autograph. Willig did so
patiently. "Best wishes to my fellow ascenders, from the 75th
floor," he wrote.
At 10 a.m. Willig pulled himself onto the top of the tower. He
could make out car horns and a swell of cheering from the street.
On the roof he accepted congratulations from a crush of policemen
and security workers who were there to greet him. Then he was
handcuffed and arrested on a reckless endangerment charge that
would be thrown out.
That was a glum time in New York City, a season of fiscal misery
and high crime; on that day many New Yorkers spoke about how
uplifting Willig's feat had been. They called him the Human Fly
and praised his courage. The city announced it would sue Willig
for $250,000 for the time and money it had spent ensuring his
safety, but Mayor Abe Beame wasn't having it. The next day he
called a press conference to say the city was dropping the suit.
Instead, he fined Willig $1.10--a penny for each floor he had
climbed--and shook his hand.
Willig never again made headlines as a climber. He embarked on a
career in telecommunications construction and engineering--he's
now a project manager--and over the years has visited the Twin
Towers many times. He intends to go to ground zero this week. "I
need to be there," he says. "I have such mixed feelings, bitter
and sweet. There's a building that in many ways defined who I am.
I had a real relationship with it, and now it's gone."
A documentary on Sir Ernest Shackleton injects a heartwarming
spirit into a chilling tale
THE ENDURANCE: Shackleton's Legendary Antarctic Expedition, which
opens this week, would be haunting at any time, but it resonates
with particular force now, a month after Sept. 11, because the
fates of Sir Ernest Shackleton and the 27 men in his company are
irrevocably altered by a single, devastating turn of events. In
late January 1915, the crew is one day's sail from Antarctica
when a wind storm blows in and its ship becomes trapped inside
miles of impenetrable ice. With that, Shackleton's mission goes
from attempting to complete a historic boat trip to a more
ennobling one: trying to bring his men home alive.
After waiting out months of almost total darkness, the company
abandons ship and embarks on a long, harrowing journey by foot
and in three small lifeboats. Provisions dwindle so low that, as
one survivor put it, "For breakfast you looked at a biscuit, for
lunch you sucked on it and for dinner you ate it."
The film's grainy photos and jerky 35mm clips are supplemented
by readings from the expeditioners' diaries, and the images take
on an eeriness that matches the gathering urgency of the
narrative. To survive, Shackleton (above, second from left)
must, as narrator Liam Neeson tells us, "guard against
infighting and insanity among the men." He does this by
maintaining an unshakable optimism and, when the group is forced
to break up, always taking the most dangerous legs of the voyage
for himself. The film is, in short, a story about the
perseverance of spirit--another reason it resonates now.
Carolyn Jones, who was critically injured in a canyoneering
accident during last month's Discovery Channel World Championship
Adventure Race (SI, Sept. 17), has been flown back to her native
Edinburgh, where she remains in a coma. "She is breathing on her
own, and doctors say she could wake up at any moment," her
mother, Veronica, told the Edinburgh Evening News. "But it is a
waiting game. It could be 10 days or 10 years. No one knows."...
Nenad Belic, who is attempting to row solo across the Atlantic
Ocean, was missing at sea as of Monday. While searchers
recovered Belic's emergency locator beacon some 230 miles off
the west coast of Ireland, there was no sign of the 62-year-old
cardiologist from Chicago or his 21-foot rowboat. He had been
rowing for 146 days....
One week after Naoko Takahashi of Japan became the first woman
to run a marathon in under two hours and 20 minutes (2:19:46),
in Berlin, Kenya's Catherine Ndereba (left) won Sunday's Chicago
Marathon in 2:18:47. "It was my dream and my prayer," says the
29-year-old Ndereba, who has won three marathons (two in
Chicago, the other in Boston) since being left off the 2000
Kenyan Olympic team. Her countryman Ben Kimondiu led a Kenyan
sweep of the men's race, with Paul Tergat and Peter Githuka
taking second and third, respectively.
In rowing parlance it is called being "Maytagged"--oarsmen being
spin-cycled through the cruel surf. It is a fate 36 two-man
teams are likely to encounter often in the Ward Evans Atlantic
Rowing Challenge (www.wearc.com), a 3,000-mile transoceanic race
that began on Sunday in the Canary Islands and will end 40 days
and 40 nights later in Barbados--for the lucky ones. In the
inaugural race, in 1997, the winning pair needed 41 days, which
was two months ahead of the last boat to finish; six of the 30
teams had to abandon their voyages. "I have a healthy respect
for what the sea can do," says 2001 competitor Dominic Biggs, a
Hong Kong- based journalist. "I expect to have blisters on my
hands and on my bottom by the time I can finally relax with a
beer in Barbados."
Miles ultrahiker Brian Robinson (SI, July 23) has now logged in
his quest to become the first to complete hiking's Triple Crown
in a single year. Having finished the 2,558-mile Continental
Divide Trail--the hardest stretch of his trek--during the last week
of September, Robinson has only 485 miles of northern New England
woods to go to make history.
For more adventure, go to siadventure.com and check out these
--Flashback: SI's coverage of the first Ironman, in 1978
--For Sail: Boating getaways in the Maldive Islands
--Gear Guide: Prepare for the ski season on skinet.com
Faces and Feats
Dawn Bourque, Thornton, N.H.
Bourque, 36, won gold medals in the cross-country and downhill
races at the Masters World Mountain Bike Championships in
Bremont, Que. The bartender and part-time landscaper beat Cecile
Gambin, 35, of Toronto, to win her third downhill age-group
Mike Pigg, Arcata, Calif.
Pigg, 37, a two-time triathlete of the year and three-time
national champion, led the Beaver Creek team to a second-place
finish in the Wild Onion Urban Adventure Race, a 24-hour
competition held in Chicago. The race was his last before
retiring after a 17-year career.
Becca Red, Lookout Mountain, Tenn.
Becca, 16, scored 284.12 points to win the junior girls'
whitewater slalom national championship in South Bend. Becca, who
has three Junior Olympic medals in the event, was also a member
of the U.S. junior team that finished first at an international
race in Tacen, Slovenia, in July.
Submit Faces candidates to siadventure.com/faces.