“Would anyone but a crazy person do this? I am a prisoner of my dream.” Philippe Petit
1968 – Dentist office, Paris, France: The magazine article mesmerized 18-year-old Philippe. He tore the article out and stuffed it in his pocket. It was about the construction of twin towers in New York City, which would be the tallest buildings in the world. At age 15, Philippe taught himself to walk on a wire and he vowed that day that he would stretch a cable between the towers and walk across.
Philippe Petit was born in Paris in August 1949. His father was an author and former French army officer. An unusual child, at an early age Petit climbed everything and taught himself magic and juggling. He stretched a rope between two trees on the family estate and spent a year learning to walk on it.
In his teens, Petit was kicked out of five schools for picking his teachers’ pockets and doing magic tricks. At 18, much to his father’s chagrin, Petit moved to Paris where he worked on street corners as a mime, magician, juggler and tightrope walker.
Construction of the north tower of the World Trade Center was completed in 1970, followed by the south tower in 1972. Petit, seized by the idea to walk between the towers, collected all the information he could find about the gigantic buildings. He traveled to Czechoslovakia to learn the rigging and securing of wire cables from Dr. Rudolph Omankowsky who trained circus high-wire performers.
When he shared his dream with the famous teacher, Omankowsky encouraged him to use a small safety wire for protection and told him, “You need to have passion and you have to work madly, to practice all day long…or you will die.” Petit taught himself all the tricks you could do on a wire: front and back somersaults, riding a unicycle and bicycle, and sitting in a chair.
In June 1971, Petit strung a wire 250 feet in the air and walked between the spires of Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris. He was arrested when he came down. In 1973, he walked between the towers of the world’s tallest steel arch bridge in Sydney, Australia. A year later, Petit moved with his girlfriend, Annie, to New York.
They took the subway to the World Trade Center. Looking up from the base of the tower, Petit stood in awe of the building. He told Annie, “It is impossible…impossible! My dream is dead!” Then he and Annie snuck up to the roof and Petit whispered, “It is impossible, but I know I will do it.”
Petit and his support crew made over 200 trips to the towers to plan the walk. They disguised themselves as construction workers or deliverymen. They measured the distance between the towers, observed the effects of wind speeds and determined how to safely string the wire cable between the corners of the towers.
The guards ran him off on several occasions, and to the relief of his crew, a dejected Petit considered alternative locations at the George Washington Bridge or Rockefeller Center for his walk. But the World Trade Center towers drew him back like a magnet.
After changing the walk date 11 times due to complications, the crew snuck into the World Trade Center the night of August 6, 1974 and rigged the wire. At 6 a.m., using a 25-foot long balancing pole, Petit stepped off the south tower on to a wire 110 stories, a quarter mile, above the streets. He crossed to the north tower and sat down on the corner of the building.
Dream accomplished. Then the south tower beckoned to him. In a 45-minute period, while traffic snarled and a huge crowd gathered below, Petit made eight crossings on the 134-foot long wire. He sat, lay down, and danced on the wire before exiting into the arms of policemen.
Today, Petit lives on a farm in upstate New York. He has made dozens of high wire walks, including crossing Niagara Falls. He has written eight books and lectures on various subjects around the world. While 12 men have walked on the moon, only one, Philippe Petit, ever walked across the sky between the World Trade Center towers.