The Artistic Crime of the Century

…or Le Coup

August 8, 1974
New York, New York. This morning, Phillippe Petit, 24, was arrested for disorderly conduct and criminal trespassing after entering the World Trade Center and stretching a high wire between the two towers. Petit, assisted by six accomplices, has been taken to Beekman Downtown Hospital for psychological observation.
A traffic jam formed in the streets below at 7:15 a.m. as spectators gathered to watch Petit 1,350 feet above them dance on the wire. After eight passes back and forth between the towers, approximately 45 minutes, Petit surrendered to waiting Port Authority of New York and New Jersey police officers.
Eyewitness Sgt. Charles Daniels told reporters:  “I observed the tightrope ‘dancer’—because you couldn’t call him a ‘walker’—approximately halfway between the two towers. And upon seeing us he started to smile and laugh and he started going into a dancing routine on the high wire….And when he got to the building we asked him to get off the high wire but instead he turned around and ran back out into the middle….He was bouncing up and down. His feet were actually leaving the wire and then he would resettle back on the wire again….Unbelievable really….Everybody was spellbound in the watching of it.”
Petit, a Frenchman, told reporters that he had planned the stunt over the last six years. When asked why, he told reporters, “If I see three oranges, I have to juggle. And if I see two towers, I have to walk.”
The seven men reportedly spent the last three days, disguised as construction workers with fake IDs, lugging their gear up to the top floor of the tower, including the 450 pound inch-thick tight rope and a disassembled 50 pound, 26 foot custom-made balancing bar. They spent the whole night setting up the tight wire. Using a bow and arrow, a line was shot across from one tower to the other and used to pull subsequently thicker ropes across. Then the tight wire was pulled across, fastened and stabilized with two guy lines to minimize swaying.
In a 2003 interview in the Observer by Adam Higginbotham, Petit said:
“Notre Dame and Sydney (Laura’s note: two other high-wire stunts he had performed) – that was nothing. Notre Dame doesn’t have a police station, it is not 1,000 or so feet high. It was a public structure, very easy to access. And Sydney Harbour Bridge was half-and-half: a bridge, in the middle of the night. The World Trade Center was the end of the world. Electronic devices, police dogs. It was l’attaque de la banque. Bank robbery, you know?”
When asked what he felt his chances to pull the stunt off were:
“Zero. Under zero. It was impossible. And the walk was not even to think of. I’m trying to sneak inside the biggest, most surveilled, protected building in the world. I was a kid from the street and I thought: maybe I could have two crews coming at more or less the same time and then putting a ton of equipment across and then guylining it and then tightening it – without being caught by all the cops and the guards? And you’re asking me did I think about the walk? Of course not. The walk was a stupid, ridiculous objective. And maybe when I did think about the walk, it was nothing. I am a wire-walker. I can walk any time, anywhere – I’m indestructible. So the walk was never a subject. Really, the tough part was the bank robbery. Getting out alive? Pfft! I was not interested in that.”

But survive the stunt he did and it is the topic of his book To Reach the Clouds, now released as a paperback titled Man On Wire. Man On Wire was not only the description of his crime on the police report, but the title of the 2008 award-wining British documentary directed by James Marsh. That’s my DVD tip for the weekend.

Where were you on August 8, 1974?

Here’s a link to the 2003 Observer article by Adam Higginbotham:


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