Daredevil makes two crossings, including one blindfolded, in front of 60,000 people, plus a worldwide TV audience
Mark Guarino in Chicago
Monday 3 November 2014 00.20 EST
Jean Christophe and his family happened to visit Chicago on the rare weekend the main attraction was not the architecture, the culture, or the sports teams.
Sunday night in downtown Chicago belonged to daredevil aerialist Nik Wallenda, who crossed the Chicago river on a high wire nearly 700ft above street level on live television.
Hours before the walk, gathering onlookers were faced with the decision whether or not they had the stamina to stick around and watch.
“I’m not too much into seeing a guy fall to his death. I prefer to watch it on TV,” Christophe said. “I hope everything’s OK.”
Indeed it was OK. Wallenda successfully crossed the 454ft-long wire from Marina Tower West, located along the north side of the Chicago river, up a 19-degree incline to the Leo Burnett building on the South side.
Wallenda, who had already conducted high-profile walks across the Grand Canyon and Niagara Falls within the last two years, added another first to his record: it was the tallest skyscraper walk for anyone in his family, known as the Flying Wallendas.
The first walk took just over six minutes. The more than 60,000 people who were crowded inside downtown streets roared when Wallenda, dressed in orange, first stepped out on the wire; waves of vocal support crested while Wallenda made his way slowly across the river.
In the breathtaking moment, there were bursts of other noise: not-too-distant police sirens and the heavy rumble of the nearby Chicago L train.
Once the first walk was complete, Wallenda then walked across the Dearborn Bridge back to the Marina building. There, he walked a wire another 94ft to the top of a second tower, 588ft (179 metres) above street level, while blindfolded. That walk lasted two minutes.
Talking with reporters after the walk, Wallenda revealed that with about 25ft left to travel during the first walk he was already thinking about the second. He also said he found himself struck by the unique vantage point.
“What an amazing, beautiful city. The skyline is so unreal to take in,” he said. “I was ready to take a selfie. I was so bummed that I didn’t.”
He said that noise from the crowd also helped build his confidence. “I was born to perform before an audience … when I first heard that roar and heard 65,000 screaming for you, it was just unbelievable.”
As for a next walk, Wallenda said he wanted to celebrate the 45th anniversary of his great-grandfather’s 1973 walk over Tallulah Gorge, a 1,000ft-deep gorge in the mountains of north-east Georgia. “I get goosebumps thinking about it. I really really want to do that walk,” he said. He also said he aimed to have a similar walk in New York City.
In June 2013, then New York police commissioner Ray Kelly rejected a potential Wallenda walk, citing public safety issues. Wallenda said the success of the Chicago walk, among others, had invalidated those concerns.
“I live by three words: never give up. I’ll be walking in New York City,” he said.
The wire Wallenda walked upon was painted white so onlookers in downtown Chicago could track his movements; floodlights illuminated him for the Discovery Channel, which broadcast the event around the world and online live, but with a 10-second delay.
When Wallenda crossed an area near the Grand Canyon last year, the Discovery Channel reported that it attracted 13 million viewers in the US and 7 million everywhere else.
Chicago police closed the two bridges that framed the walk, as well as Wacker Drive.
People who live along the downtown bend in the river found themselves part of the action. Bill LaMacchia, 48, who lives in the Marina City east tower, says residents in his building were given strict instructions regarding their outdoor balconies during the walk: no lights, no lasers, no loud music. “The whole two towers are embracing it,” he said.
Pat and Debbie Frederickson who were visiting Chicago from Seattle for the weekend, scanned the sky from the State Street Bridge before police closed it to onlookers.
“I don’t know. There’s no safety net,” Pat Frederickson said warily. “You have to think he practiced this, you have to think he knows what he’s doing.”
Apparently he did.