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Highwire Act  
Rebuild the towers—and I’ll dance between them again, promises the tightrope walker who did the stunt 27 years ago  

    Sept. 24 —  Philippe Petit did not lose friends or relatives in the collapse of the World Trade Center two weeks ago. He didn’t lose officemates or important work that he’d left on his desk. He didn’t even lose, as many of us have, his faith in humanity. But the tightrope walker did lose something invaluable on September 11, 2001: He lost his muse.  

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       “I WAS JUST STARING at the screen saying ‘unbelievable, unbelievable,’ over and over,” said Petit, who earned fame on Aug. 7, 1974 by dancing on a tightrope he’d secretly strung between the Twin Towers, a stunt that put the then-unfinished World Trade Center on the map for reasons far greater than even its massive height.
        “My friends called and said, ‘They’ve destroyed your towers!’ Obviously, I can not even talk about it without acknowledging the human loss at those buildings, but I did have an intimate relationship with them — I even called them ‘my towers’ — and now they’re gone.”
        In 1974, of course, Petit’s highwire act was a bit of absurdist art designed to put a smile on the faces of those faceless downtown officeworkers forced to toil in a nondescript tower with windows so narrow that they didn’t even get to enjoy the view that should have been their compensation.
        But looking back at Petit’s stunt today, with the buildings gone and so many of those once-anonymous workers staring out from “Missing” posters hanging outside every city hospital, the midair walk takes on a poignancy far beyond the act itself.
        To understand the enormity of what Petit accomplished, it is necessary to do something painful: Rebuild those 110-story monoliths in your mind. See them standing. See them dwarfing all the other skyscrapers around them, some of which were, in their own day, the tallest buildings in the world.
        See the workers scurrying to their cubicles. See the Towers gently rocking back and forth in that relentless wind. See the sliver of slate gray sky. See the world as it once was. Now, go back to that day in 1974. Although technically unfinished, the Twin Towers had completed their inhuman ascent over their relatively low-rise neighbors. The buildings were already being attacked by architecture critics as “banal” and “so boring as to be unworthy of a bank headquarters in Omaha,” as critic Paul Goldberger (now of the New Yorker) wrote at the time.

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        After nine years of dreaming and eight months of planning (which included countless forays into the buildings dressed as workmen), Petit had his crossbow-toting accomplice shoot a hemp rope from the North Tower to Petit on the South. The pair used the rope as a conveyor belt to shuttle stronger lines across the 131-foot canyon.
        At 7:15, with his wire taut and his courage screwed to some unseen sticking post 1,350 feet above the concrete, Petit took his first steps. The wind blew hard, but after a couple of strides, Petit got his legs. He even started dancing on the wire. Workers on the ground stopped in their tracks. From their vantage point, of course, the wire was invisible. A man appeared to be walking on air between the Twin Towers.
        At one point, Petit even lay down on the wire itself. Looking at pictures from that day, I still get breathless, me, a guy who could barely even look down on the world from the Observatory deck of 2 World Trade Center without hyperventilating. Yet I always felt inspired by what Petit had accomplished. But now, in light of the attack, when I close my eyes to relive Petit’s stunt, hoping that a fond memory of a great feat of human poetry will pull me through this purgatory of dread, I can only see Petit falling. Even in my imagination, I never see him make it across. Something in my mind starts him wobbling and then he slips. There’s nothing I can do.
        I try to get him across that wire by re-reading newspaper clips of his stunt. I find it helpful to read stories that recall how even the cops sent to arrest him were in awe of Petit’s highwire act.
“He was going back and forth like this was his daily routine.”
       “He was going back and forth like this was his daily routine,” said officer William Shanley. Even the shrink who examined him was impressed, proclaiming Petit “perfectly normal” — although he did add that “anyone who does this 110 stories up can’t be entirely right.”
        Surrounded by reporters, Petit offered the classic “because it is there” explanation. “If I see three oranges, I have to juggle,” said the man who had already walked between the spires of the Notre Dame cathedral in Paris and across Sydney’s famed Harbor Bridge. “And if I see two towers, I have to walk. I couldn’t help laughing. It was so beautiful. I was dying of happiness.”
        But last week, after watching his towers collapse on national TV, Petit took a broader view of his stunt, giving it a greater meaning than perhaps it ever had. For me, talking to him was more therapy than journalism.
        “It was a romantic dialogue between one of the world’s seven wonders and myself as an artist,” said Petit, now 51. “I loved those towers and I knew I had to conquer them, if only to inspire people. It was a time in our history when things were not looking so good. And I wanted people to be able to look at the sky again.”
        Petit is an artist, so you have to forgive him his poetry. But the heart on his sleeve is beating the right message. “To hear the words ‘World Trade Center’ today is remember an outrage,” he said. “But someday, you will hear the words ‘World Trade Center’ and you will hear a cheer of rebirth.”
        Petit, who remained in New York and is an “artist in residence” at the quirky Cathedral of St. John the Divine, has added his voice to the chorus demanding that the Twin Towers be rebuilt exactly as they were, to stand as a tribute to the original buildings and a symbol of American resolve. Although it would be impossible to find tenants for the top 50 floors of the reborn Twin Towers, the desire to show the world that New York won’t be intimidated is strong.
        “It should be rebuilt because if they are not rebuilt, the terrorists win,” he said, recalling the brick-by-brick, flawless reconstruction of the Campanile tower in Venice’s Piazza San Marco after it collapsed in 1902.
        “The Venetians had a slogan, ‘com’era, dov’era,’ which means ‘the way it was, where it was.’ New York must do the same thing.” And Petit added an incentive. “If they are rebuilt, I will dance across again,” he promised. “I will dance across and people will look up at the sky and they will believe again that mountains can move. They can move, you know. I have seen it.” That’s a nice thought for a city still buried underneath one.
American Beat: Blaming a Victim


Gersh Kuntzman is also a columnist for The New York Post. His website is at http://www.gersh.tv/
       © 2001 Newsweek, Inc.

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