Yesterday I wrote about Colum McCann’s novel Let the Great World Spin, in which many disparate events converge around Philippe Petit’s walk between the World Trade Center towers. It wasn’t until I read McCann’s novel that I stopped to think. “Oh. My. God. How could anyone have possibly walked on a wire between the two towers?”
I found answers in a book Petit wrote about his experience, To Reach the Clouds: My High Wire Walk Between the Twin Towers, and in a documentary based on the book, Man on Wire, directed by James Marsh.
Both movie and book give a sense of how nearly impossible the feat was, but how, incredibly, Petit and his friends pulled it off. Even though you know they succeed, the suspense is great as Petit and his friends sneak 440 pounds of cable and other equipment into the building and up 104 flights while encountering guards they’re sure will catch them and keep Petit from reaching his dream.
There is no footage of Petit actually walking between the towers. One of his friends was supposed to film the walk, but the friend was arrested before he could get the camera working. However, incredible still shots of Petit are included throughout the film and in the book and give a good sense of the unbelievable feat Petit accomplished: walking back and forth on a wire ¾ of an inch in diameter, kneeling, laying down and nearly dancing, a quarter mile in the sky.
In a beautiful, first person voice, Petit relays the poetry of wire-walking.
The wire waits.
The unknown, the infinite, the joyous reaper stretches out its arms and hides its face. Its arms of thousands, tens of thousands, of tons of concrete, glass, steel, and threat. A gaping mouth 110 stories deep, more than 400 meters tall.
An inner howl assails me, the wild longing to flee.
But it is too late.
The wire is ready.
My heart is so forcibly pressed against that wire, each beat echoes, echoes and casts each approaching thought into the netherworld.
Decisively, my other foot sets itself onto the cable.”
Wire-walking for Petit is not a mere stunt. It is artistry.
On the DVD, there is footage of Petit performing between other structures. In the years before his WTC walk, he put a cable between two towers of a cathedral near his Parisian boyhood home, and stopped traffic for an hour while he walked between the northern pylons of the Sydney Harbor Bridge. There is also footage of his training for the WTC walk, with his friends pulling on the cavalettis (guy wires) holding the main wire in place, trying to simulate the possible undulations that wind might create at so high an elevation.
The DVD includes interviews with Petit and his friends, now grown older and estranged, who helped him train and rig the wire between the buildings. The Special Features section should not be overlooked, especially the interview with Petit, now in his fifties and living in upstate New York, as he discusses his life and his many walks throughout the years.
Read the book for a few more technical details and for Petit’s own poetic recollections of the walk. Watch the DVD to see this incredible man in action.