What: Frenchman Philippe Petit’s walk across the 140 feet between the Twin Towers—eight times—on August 7, 1974. Here’s the trailer for a new documentary about it, Man on Wire:
Why: Philippe Petit saw an article on the Twin Towers being built in 1968, and he thought, “I could walk between those.” This was no idle thought: he had already spanned the gaps of Notre Dame Cathedral and the Sydney Harbour Bridge. But being able to do so and being permitted to do so were two different things. So he got a helicopter, taking aerial photos of the towers to see where the stable points were. Then he and his co-conspirators made fake IDs and snuck into the construction site dressed as workmen, plotting the workers’ schedules so he wouldn’t be seen sneaking onto the roof. He pretended to be a magazine writer, interviewing workers about the weight the beams could hold. And then, six years into the process, Petit and his associates took a freight elevator to the roof. They fired an arrow from one tower to the other… hold on, let me say that again: They fired an arrow from one tower to the other, stringing a fishing line across. They used that line to string across a thicker rope, then another, then another, until a 450-pound steel cable spanned the gap. And then he stepped off the ledge. In 45 minutes, with onlookers a quarter-mile below gaping in awe, Petit began walking between the towers. The Port Authority police scrambled to the roof and threatened to arrest him, but he escaped by simply turning around and walking to the other side. Eventually, the cops got a helicopter and politely offered to pick him up mid-walk. The fear of fatal downdraft got Petit to return to solid ground, and off he went to a holding cell.
Impact: Petit became a New York icon, and all charges were dropped. (Though the judge did impose a creative sentence: Petit had to perform a show for kids, walking above a lake in Central Park.) But the biggest impact was on the towers themselves. In a skyline that included the gorgeous Empire State and Chrysler Buildings, the Twin Towers initially were deemed a dull and unforgiving design. Petit made them cool, and for exactly 27 years and 34 days, they remained cool.
Personal Connection: On the day after that, they were gone. My first thought, once I processed the reality of what was happening, was of Petit, and how no one would ever walk that space again. That saddened me, because in my youth, I latched onto Petit as a hero. There’s a chance that my penchant for hatching crazy stunts comes from him. So if anyone reading this ever gets caught up in one of my schemes and regrets it, take it up with the French guy.
Other Contenders: students reprogram the Washington Huskies’ pep cards at the 1961 Rose Bowl to spell CALTECH; MIT students put a police car on top of the Great Dome; Orson Welles unleashes a wave of Martian invaders on the earth; two young girls photograph The Cottingley Fairies to the wonderment of millions of gullible Britons.