Early last Thursday morning, with the sun rising behind him and reflecting brilliantly on the 1,350-foot-high white aluminum monolith before him, George Willig began climbing the 110 stories of the South Tower of New York City's World Trade Center. Only one skyscraper in the world is higher, the 1,454-foot Sears building in Chicago. After Willig was about 25 feet up, he cast off an all-weather parka he had been wearing to conceal the climbing equipment he carried on a sling over one shoulder. The parka floated down like a parachute, into the hands of Jery Hewitt, who, along with George's 22-year-old brother Steve, had seen the climber off.
Security guards spotted George from the building's plaza. "I saw one, two, a few more, then all of a sudden there was a whole bunch of cops, maybe 20," said Steve. "They started yelling at George, calling him crazy, telling him he was going to kill himself."
"Hey! Crazy man! Get down here right now!" shouted one of the guards. Willig heard him, stopped climbing for a moment, leaned back in his harness and looked down. His reply floated to the ground as his parka had moments earlier. "I'm not coming down," George yelled. "There's only one way to go, and that's up."
It was a reply that can be taken both literally and metaphorically. By now most of the country has been lifted by Willig's accomplishment. On a day off from work for "personal business," Willig successfully scaled the northeast corner of the South Tower, solo, no ropes or belay to aid or protect him, relying entirely on a climbing device he had fabricated himself, designed specifically to fit into the aluminum channels that run up the sides of the building and hold window washers' scaffolds in place. To Willig the climb was a personal challenge met and satisfied, a mountain conquered: no more. But it was more, more than a feat, more than a stunt. It was a triumph of human spirit.
The night before the climb Willig had slept fitfully, even awakened twice in a sweat. At 5 a.m., after a breakfast of steak and eggs and water, he left his apartment in Queens, climbed into Hewitt's pickup truck, and together they drove to George's parents' house, where they picked up Steve. They arrived at the World Trade Center at 6:20, and minutes later George was strapping on his climbing harness in the plaza between the twin towers. As he prepared to hitch himself into the runners, a maintenance man walked by. George smiled nonchalantly and said, "Hi, how ya doin'?" trying to divert attention from the rope dangling out of the back of his parka like an untucked undershirt. The maintenance man smiled and said hello right back.
Willig had been planning the climb for more than a year. On four previous occasions, all late at night, he had slipped into the plaza and tested his homemade climbing device—a variation of a standard climbing aid called an ascendeur.
Once he actually climbed a few feet up the side of the building and was caught in the act by a security guard. He talked his way out of trouble by claiming to be an architectural engineering student testing a safety device for window washers. Willig's ascendeurs fitted precisely into the channel; connected to them were nylon slings, resembling stirrups, into which he slid his feet. When there was no weight on the ascendeurs, Willig could slide them freely up the runner. As he put his weight on one foot, the ascendeur expanded and gripped firmly into the runner by friction. Willig would lift one foot, bending his knee, slide the ascendeur up as high as his arm could reach, put the weight back on the foot and create a solid step up; then he would repeat the maneuver with the other foot. "It was like climbing a rope ladder," he says, "except my hands and feet were moving together."
Willig wore a chest harness attached to a seat harness, which provided stability and the freedom to dangle his arms and legs whenever he needed to rest. In his backpack he carried two complete backup systems: one a duplicate of the ascendeurs he was using, the other of an earlier design. He also carried a bolt-on device to secure himself to a runner in case of emergency. "I did some calculations and figured my ascendeurs would stand a minimum of 1,500 pounds without breaking," he says, "but I just wanted to be ready."
None of these devices so much as scratched the surface of the building; in fact, Willig straightened some bent runners along the way by gently tapping them with a spare ascendeur he toted in his backpack.
Willig, 27, creates toys for the Ideal Toy Co.; before that, he designed surgical instruments for the Ark Research Co. He built his ascendeurs in the machine shop at Ark and refined them at Ideal after working hours. "The biggest challenge came from designing the ascendeurs," he says. "The climb itself was not particularly difficult; rock climbing is a lot more scary because it's so problematical and precarious. I had solid footing all the way up the building, and my route was predetermined, so I had no decisions to make. That's what's so difficult about rock climbing. When those challenges are gone, a climb is easy."