Philippe Petit has no television. When a friend phoned with the unspeakable news on Sept. 11, he ran to a neighbor's house and saw the World Trade Center disintegrate into dust. "My reaction?" says Petit, exhaling deeply at his rural retreat in upstate New York. "Please quote me in full. First, of course, profound sorrow at the still-unfinished human tragedy. And second, I felt—with the collapse of the towers—like I had lost my child."
His voice is inflected with anguish and the accent of his native France. Petit speaks, like so many bereaved, in the present tense, as if the buildings were still standing. "I know those towers better than anybody in the world," says the 52-year-old. "I studied them for nine years, legally and illegally, before and after my walk. That's what I call it, 'my walk.' It was nine years from the moment I got the idea to the moment I illegally strung a cable between the twin giants. In that time I studied, I practiced—and I dreamed?
Petit forever became a folk hero on the morning of Aug. 7, 1974, when he stepped off the roof of the south tower and onto a cable less than an inch wide that stretched, like a taut guitar string, 131 feet to the roof of the north tower. It was rigged there, surreptitiously, with the aid of accomplices disguised as carpenters and deliverymen, with whom Petit had staked out the rooftops for months. For 45 minutes that summer morning—1,350 feet above a pedestrian plaza—Petit walked the length of the cable seven times. He wore black slippers, a V-neck sweater and an unalloyed expression of joy. His smile was broadcast around the globe. "I wanted to offer to Manhattan, America and the world an image of the impossible," recalls Petit. "I wanted to make a statement to move mountains and to show that the impossible does not exist."
The audacity of his act left onlookers agog, for something like the opposite reason that viewers sat agape last week. The hijackers reminded us what human beings are capable of. In a small—but happy—way, so too did Petit. Crowds cheered him as crimson-faced authorities idly threatened him with jail. "The police were very, very angry with me," he says, "because they didn't know how to approach a poet dancing in the sky."
He had given goose bumps to Americans in the endgame days of the Watergate scandal. And so Petit was formally "sentenced," in a court of law, to perform a show for children in Central Park, where he walked a wire strung between a tree and Belvedere Castle. In lieu of a fine he was given a lifetime pass to the public observation deck atop the south tower. And he was eventually appointed artist-in-residence at Manhattan's magnificent St. John the Divine Cathedral, where he still works most of the year.
"I am not a daredevil or a high-wire artist," explains Petit. "I am only an actor who uses the high-wire as a stage. Daredevils use the wire to demonstrate power or courage, but I am a man of theater. As a young man I saw the plans for those towers, and they represented for me a beautiful, poetic dream."
To many others, too, the towers were emblematic of man's aspirations. Among the crew that raised World Trade Center Towers 1 and 2 was a Queens construction worker named Owen J. Quinn, who leaped from the north tower on July 22, 1975, free-falling for 50 stories before deploying a parachute and alighting safely in the plaza. He fluttered to earth in a football jersey whose name and number read MATTHEW 19:26. That is to say, "With God, all things are possible."
Two years later George (the Human Fly) Willig, who was from Moriches, N.Y., climbed the exterior of the south tower, from street level to roof, by slotting homemade handles into the window-washing tracks that ran vertically the length of each building. Willig's mother, Therese, was a 19-year-old secretary on the 79th floor of the Empire State Building on July 28, 1945, when an Army B-25 bomber crashed into the skyscraper, killing 13 people. But that is mere coincidence. When Willig was asked at the end of his 316-hour ascent why he did it, he replied, "I wanted to get to the top." An echo of Hillary's explanation: "Because it's there."
And now it is not, nor are thousands of souls who perished with it. "How to talk of this," says Petit, contemplating the catastrophe, "except to say it is the illustration of the word unbelievable?"
Owen J. Quinn was, at last report, living happily on the Jersey shore. The answering machine at Willig's home in Woodland Hills, Calif., says he is away until Sept. 19. And then there is Petit, who has remained for 27 years in the city (and country) he has come to love.