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  • 24.06.2019

    ‘Flying Wallendas’ Times Square High-Wire Walk Evokes Rich History of Death-Defying Stunts in N.Y.

    • Description
      On Sunday night, Nik and Lijana Wallenda walked a quarter-mile on a wire strung 25 stories above Midtown Manhattan.
      Nik Wallenda, a member of the Flying Wallendas circus family, walking the tight rope over Times Square in Manhattan on Sunday.

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      Ali Ali, 30, looked up from his steaming hot dog cart on West 45th Street on Sunday night and gazed up at a wire rigged along the length of Times Square between two skyscrapers, 25 stories above street level.

      “It’s crazy — they are walking through the sky,” said Mr. Ali, who for the moment had no customers.

      They, along with throngs of people — whether tourists or jaded New Yorkers — were staring, necks craned, toward the night sky to watch Nik and Lijana Wallenda walking a wire high above Manhattan.

      The siblings — members of the Flying Wallendas circus family — held balancing poles and started on opposite sides of a 1,300 foot wire, slowly inching their way to the center, where they met.

      Then she sat carefully on the wire. He stepped over her. And they both proceeded on their way to complete the walk.

      “Maybe the biggest surprise was that the wire was as stable as it was,” Mr. Wallenda said afterward.

      New York City’s love affair with death-defying stunts is well established.

      Harry Houdini did it more than a century ago when he was shackled inside a packing crate and plunged into the East River.

      The daredevil Evel Knievel, dressed in his trademark red, white and blue leather jumpsuit, managed to do it in 1971 when he jumped his motorcycle over nine cars and a van in Madison Square Garden.

      Three years later, Philippe Petit aimed for the same effect when he walked a wire between the twin towers of the World Trade Center.

      “That’s the inspiration behind what I do,” Mr. Wallenda, 40, said in an earlier interview. “I pay tribute to my family and to those greats like Harry Houdini and Philippe Petit. I mean, I want to do it my own way, of course.”

      Mr. Wallenda, top, stepping over his sister Lijana Wallenda.

      The family, whose performance history dates back to the Austro-Hungarian Empire in the late 1700s, made their American debut in 1928 as part of the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus at the old Madison Square Garden, not far from where the Wallendas executed their stunt on Sunday night.

      The Wallendas were following in the footsteps of daredevils like Houdini, who in 1912 escaped from handcuffs, leg-irons and a sealed, weighted crate that was submerged in the East River.

      Mr. Petit, even after being arrested and charged in connection to his World Trade Center feat, was permitted to walk a wire, untethered, over Amsterdam Avenue to St. John the Divine Cathedral in Manhattan in 1982.

      In 2006, the illusionist and endurance performer David Blaine spent seven days submerged in a water-filled sphere at Lincoln Center in Manhattan.

      But alas, times are tougher these days for performers seeking city approval for such stunts.

      In 2013, Mr. Wallenda wanted to walk a wire strung between the Chrysler Building and the Empire State Building, but was unable to get permission from city officials.

      Onlookers watching Mr. Wallenda during his stunt over Times Square.

      The Wallendas were able to get approval for Sunday’s walk provided they wear safety harnesses. While removing a certain element of danger, this ruling also made the 20-minute walk more difficult, and there would be no safety net, Mr. Wallenda said.

      “It’s like putting handcuffs on somebody and saying, ‘Now walk the wire,’” he said, adding that he would also be wearing cameras and other equipment. “It’s a lot of gear and it adds more and more stress.”

      Sunday’s wire walk, which was broadcast live on ABC, would be more challenging than the one he envisioned for 2013, Mr. Wallenda said.

      “The other walk, I would have been so high up and out of the mix,” he said. “In Times Square you have these crazy L.E.D. billboards distracting you the entire walk. You have thousands of people below, the city lights, the sirens, the horns. This is the most exciting walk I could do in New York City.”

      Mr. Wallenda said he and his crew had had a window of less than six hours to rig the wire while Seventh Avenue was shut down overnight. It was 1,300 feet long and strung between 1 Times Square at the south end of the open area of Times Square at 42nd Street, and 2 Times Square, just north of the TKTS booth at 47th Street.

      It was a fraught process that involved avoiding power lines and construction zones, he said.

      “It was a massive undertaking, setting a quarter-mile cable that really involves rigging four miles of cable when you include the stabilizing lines,” Mr. Wallenda said.

      Mr. Wallenda has been walking tightropes since childhood. In 2012, he walked a wire over Niagara Falls, and in 2013, he traversed the Little Colorado River Gorge near the Grand Canyon.

      Onlookers gathered to watch the Wallendas’ execute their stunt, 25 stories above street level.

      For Ms. Wallenda, 42, the walk was her first high-wire attempt since a 2017 accident in which she and four other walkers fell 30 feet off a tightrope during a rehearsal and were seriously injured.

      “She nearly lost her life; she was in a coma and broke every bone in her face,” Mr. Wallenda said. “So this will be extremely emotional. I’ll be surprised if I’m not shedding tears before I even finish.”

      After the walk, Mr. Wallenda was asked what his next performance would be.

      “I really want to want walk over an active volcano,” he said.

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