On September 11, 2001 Philippe Petit had a particular reason to feel a deep sadness as he watched the last moments of two old friends. He was not actually in NYC, which had been his home for 30 years but at his summer retreat in the Catskills on this awful day.
Disbelief at this unimaginable moment was followed by sorrow at the demise of the Twin Towers and an immense rage at the dreadful and senseless loss of life. He thought not only of this but of his own special connection to the buildings themselves. He had been a frequent visitor to them even while construction was still in full swing, as he had an audacious plan. Perhaps there are few men who knew the Twin Towers “inside and out” as he did.
It all began in a dentist’s waiting room in France when young Philippe made a decision to fulfil his very own unique American Dream: one which no one else would ever achieve nor ever will since there are no plans to rebuild the World Trade Centre as they were.
Philippe was born on 13 August 1949 in Nemours, Seine-et-Marne.
He became an excellent juggler and magician, but it was rope walking (also known as funambulism) which would become his number one passion.
He first climbed onto a tightrope at age 16 and gradually learned not only how to stay on, but how to do backward somersaults and ride a unicycle along the suspended cable. He was determined to be the very best in his chosen art. He would take what he loved to the greatest imaginable heights.
His more conventional parents were perplexed at his career choice, but his friends, especially Jean-Louis Blondeau, encouraged him to live his dream.
During a visit to the dentist in early 1968 he read a magazine article about the planned World Trade Centre. He was so interested that he left without seeing the dentist about his painful tooth and began collecting all available articles about the nascent New York landmark. Perhaps, despite having absolutely no fear of heights, he has odontophobia – a fear of dentists – which somehow makes him seem more like one of us…
His great “coup” took six years of determined and detailed planning. Philippe had to take into account such scientific and logistical issues such as the wind factor at the top of the buildings as well as gathering the optimum specs for his equipment and balancing pole.
On 26 June 1971 he walked a wire between the two towers of the Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris. 1973 saw him in Australia, where he walked between the two north pylons of Sydney Harbour Bridge.
At the time of his highest performance he was already fairly well known in New York for tightrope walking acts and magic shows in the parks of the city. During his reconnaissance trips he fell in love with the Big Apple and decided he would make it his home.
Setting the Scene for the Grand Coup
His main focus, and that of his collaborators, was getting the heavy equipment to the top of the towers without permission. The whole scene was planned like that of a major crime, and they began thinking like criminals!
He and his co-conspirators observed the clothes worn by both construction as well as office workers and the times they arrived and left.
They managed to sneak into the uncompleted buildings several times to check the security measures and to determine the best spots to anchor the wire and cavalletti. Philippe constructed a scale model of the towers to assist his planning of the big event. He and his crew managed to get the assistance of an American working on the 82nd floor, who secured ID passes for them. They managed to convince security that they were constructing an electrified fence on the roof.
As the big day drew nearer he successfully passed himself off as a journalist from a French architectural magazine to interview workers on the roof and gain as much inside info as he could.
On Tuesday night 6 August, Philippe’s team managed to take a freight elevator to the top of the South Tower with the 450 lb (200 kg) cable which was the centrepiece of the drama. But they had a tough time dodging guards and arrived on the roof three hours later than planned. But had they been caught before Philippe commenced his actual walk, it would have sunk their entire scheme.
His other backup assistants had to get to the top of the North Tower to secure the 60m supporting cable and other kit.
Philippe and his friend Jean-Louis were ready to shoot the main cable across the void using a bow and arrow attached to a rope. This they had spent many hours practising. Despite this, the heavy cable sank down too fast and they had to spend several hours pulling it up the side of the building by hand.
Despite all these teething problems their stoic patience paid off and they continued to make progress. The dawning sun saw Philippe ready to venture into space.
Philippe’s Greatest Day: Wednesday 7 August 1974
It was approximately 7 a m. Some of the morning commuters looked up fearfully, believing someone tired of life was preparing to jump. Fortunately for them, what they were about to see was a great deal more cheerful.
Far above them Philippe stepped onto the wire with his custom made 26 foot (8 m) long balancing pole, weighing 55 pounds (25 kg).
Once he began his walk along the 60m (200 ft) void between the two towers, 417m (1368 ft) above the New York street on the one inch wide cable, he gathered complete confidence despite not being 100% happy with the way it was rigged. He would end up spending 45 minutes on the wire, crossing a total of eight times.
After the first crossing he rested for a while on the wire, against the face of the North Tower, just taking a few deep breaths and appreciating his unique position.
At one point he calmly lay down on the wire, balancing the long, heavy bar across his chest. At other times he would dance, sit, kneel to salute breathless watchers whom he could barely see; even look down – something he is quick to acknowledge is dangerous for a wire walker to do. But he was living the moment and at no instant did he feel fearful or lose control of his exuberant coolness.
Since sound travels up, Philippe heard the cheering and clapping from the spectators 400m below him. Construction crew members and office workers gazed from the windows of the great buildings. Drivers left their cars to gape at the spectacle. Philippe was making their day interesting. A great number of people would arrive late at work on this magical day.
The cops kept trying to persuade him off the wire. Evidently it was a low crime day in NYC and they could spare a large squad to try and nab a troublesome trespasser.
They got desperate (or maybe they were getting vertigo) and threatened to slacken or cut the wire or to “get him off” with a helicopter. They probably had no plans to actually carry out these lethal threats but Jean-Francois believed them and was in a nervous state as he yells the threats in French to the funambulist on the wire. Finally Philippe decided it was time for a dramatic last crossing. As he took his last step on the wire and allowed the nearest cops to grab him from their respectful distance from the edge, it began to rain: a fitting finale to a remarkable feat!
Some of the waiting policemen were very angry, as well as wet but others were full of admiration for what they had witnessed. Philippe was hastily manhandled towards the entrance of the tower, with many workers and others applauding as the officers descended the lift and hurried away with him.
Believing they had a possible madman on their hands the first place they took him to was Beekman-Downtown Hospital for mental assessment but it didn’t take long for them to declare him perfectly sane.
On arrival at the Police HQ the handcuffed Philippe and his two assistants were booked but the D.A. dropped all charges on condition Philippe puts on a free performance in Central Park for children.
Newspapers throughout the world published articles and pictures of Philippe to lighten the daily gloom of their front pages.
A week after the big event Philippe celebrated his 25th birthday.
He is a resident artist at the Cathedral of St John the Divine in NYC. He travels throughout the world to present lectures and workshops on many of his favourite topics.
Other hobbies in which he excels include horse riding, rock climbing, fencing, bull-fighting and carpentry. Among his numerous achievements is the barn he single-handedly built using traditional methods and tools of 18th century timber workers, at his retreat in the Catskills. But wire walking remains the activity for which he is best known.
His unauthorized but amazing deed greatly increased the popularity of the “concrete monstrosities”, as many people viewed them. The buildings now had soul in most people’s eyes.
The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey awarded Philippe a lifetime free pass to the observation deck. He was invited to autograph a steel beam near the point where he began his aerial walk. He was now an honoured freeman of the World Trade Centre, free to come and go as he pleased!
He will never forget the incredible views he encountered during his walk. No one else has ever experienced quite the same viewpoint which Philippe had on that narrow wire.
Some of his more memorable walks since then include the re-enactment of Blondin’s Niagara walk for an AniMAX film in 1986, and an inclined walk in Paris, crossing the Seine in 1989, to mark the 200th anniversary of the French Revolution. The one and only fall he ever had was at the time of a brief stint with Ringling Brothers circus, during a practice when he fell 45 feet (14m) and broke several ribs.
His book about his Twin Towers experience, To Reach the Clouds, was published in 2002.
Philippe’s inspirational attitude to life in his own words:
“To me, it’s really so simple: life should be lived on the edge. You have to exercise rebellion, to refuse to tape yourself to the rules, to refuse your own success, to refuse to repeat yourself, to see every day, every year, every idea as a true challenge. Then you will live your life on the tightrope.”
“I am a very positive man in life, I like to create, I like to build.”
Twenty-seven years later the crowds would be watching the buildings with shock and dismay. But on this day of 1974, Philippe brought joy, awe and excitement into the humdrum daily lives of the thousands of New Yorkers who looked up at the Towers and witnessed his performance from 400m below.
His remarkable achievement inspired two movies: an award winning documentary Man On Wire released in 2008 and the excellent, breathtaking movie The Walk (2015) starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Philippe. Ensure you have plenty of space to pull your legs up to your chin and cradle your beating heart as it jumps into your mouth during the aerial scenes.
Mordicai Gerstein wrote a children’s book based on the walk, The Man Who Walked Between the Towers in 2003 which was made into an animated movie released in 2005.
Philippe’s performance should be never be forgotten. It remains the most moving tribute to the memory of the World Trade Centre and all those who perished with her.