THE BUFFALO NEWS: Governor OKs tightrope walk over Niagara Falls

Mark Grisanti

September 26, 2011


The Flying Wallenda who wants to cheat death with a tightrope walk across Niagara Falls will get his wish, at least with the blessing of New York state.

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo signed legislation today permitting Nik Wallenda’s bid to walk 1,800 feet across the falls on a two-inch wide steel cable.

Officials on the Canadian side of the falls have yet to signal their final word on the matter.

 The proposed feat – praised by backers for the tens of thousands of tourists it could attract and derided by detractors as a trashy misuse of the falls that could put rescue crews at danger if something goes wrong – would occur sometime next year if Wallenda has his way. It would be shown as part of Life on a Wire, a new Discovery Channel television reality series about the member of the legendary circus family.

The legislation, approved overwhelmingly in June by the Senate and Assembly, directs the state parks department to let Wallenda use Goat Island as his departure point for the walk he wants to make just in front of Horseshoe Falls to a terrace outside the visitors center on the Canadian side. Wallenda will pay all costs, such as security, and will hold the state legally harmless if he falls, the legislation states.

The Niagara Parks Commission in Niagara Falls, Ont., has said Wallenda has not yet formally applied for the walk, and officials in recent months have noted agency’s long history of discouraging such stunts over the falls.

If Canada rejects his bid, Wallenda is also said to be considering crossing just the part of the falls on the New York side — from Goat Island to the city.

New York officials have been discussing the Wallenda plan with Canadian officials in recent weeks, sources say.

A Wallenda walk over the falls would come more than 150 years after the “Great Blondin” first tightrope walked across the gorge.

Wallenda, a member of a seven-generation circus family, said the Niagara Falls walk has been a dream of his for years. He has stepped up efforts over the past year for the Discovery Channel show. He has walked inside his self-titled “Wheel of Death” device as it hung over the side of the 23rd floor of a Las Vegas hotel and earlier this year performed the same high-wire act with his mother in Puerto Rico that killed his great-grandfather Karl Wallenda in 1978.

In an interview earlier this summer, Wallenda, 32, said he chose Niagara Falls for its beauty and daredevil history. The costs he will cover include a helicopter that will hover above him in case he falls; if he slipped, the plan, Wallenda said, would be to grab onto the wire and await a helicopter rescue. That’s never happened in his years of rope walking.

“Worst-case scenario, I sit down on the wire, the helicopter swoops in, I hook on and they get me out of there. I look goofy, but nobody gets hurt,” he says on his website.

While Wallenda bristles at the word “stunt,” critics of the Falls walk idea say daredevil feats have been discouraged for a reason: they can be dangerous to both spectators, the daredevils themselves and rescue workers who might have to get into the water or rocks if Wallenda falls.

 A Niagara Falls historian, Paul Gromosiak, said the last legal walk across the river was in 1910, when Oscar Williams stretched a rope across the gorge and hung in the middle for 45 minutes.

 Philippe Petit, best known for his 1975 high-wire walk between the World Trade Center towers, 1986 performed a 40-foot walk near Horseshoe Falls along the Canadian shore. Tightrope walker Jay Cochrane spent the summers of 2005 and 2007 above Niagara Falls, Ont. But his walks were between buildings in the city and did not touch land overseen by the Parks Commission.

 Wallenda told lawmakers he would call Cuomo on a cell phone from half-way across the walk if the measure was signed into law.

The Wallenda bill passed both houses of the 212-member Legislature with only one no vote. A legislative memo accompanying the bill states simply that the walk will be good for tourism and economic development in Niagara Falls.

“It is also important to note that, unlike past Niagara Falls daredevils, Mr. Wallenda is an expert in his field and, therefore, safety concerns are very unlikely to be a factor in his case,” the bill memo states, noting his world records for various daredevil feats and his family’s long ties to the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey circus.

Wallenda, who lives in Sarasota, Fla., has been walking on wires since he was four years old. Earlier this summer, he described the training that would go into the practice before a walk over the Falls, including wire walks near his home with airboats blowing winds at and around him to replicate the winds near the Falls.

Wallenda traces his daredevil roots back to 1780s Europe and ancestors who traveled in a circus performing aerial and animal training acts. He even proposed to his wife while on a tightrope before a Montreal audience.

Progress toward getting the necessary approval from authorities on the Canadian side of the falls has stalled. Wallenda has not submitted the required written proposal to the Niagara Parks Commission, which has jurisdiction over all the Canadian land bordering the Horseshoe Falls and the Niagara River near the falls.

This means that no action can be taken until the commission meets in the middle of November, at the earliest, says Janice Thomson, interim chair of the commission.

“There’s been no requests made to us,” she said.

In early August, Wallenda met with the commission’s general manager, Fay Booker.

“But at that time, he was instructed that, if he wanted to move further, he had to submit some kind of a proposal,” Thomson said.

“It’s a process that we will be taking up soon,” said Winston Simone, Wallenda’s manager. “We met with them, they were very nice, they said they’d be happy to get a proposal, and we’ll be getting that to them. We very much want it to happen, and they’re very nice to consider it.”

When might a proposal might be submitted?

“We are also well aware that there’s an election, so we probably won’t re-engage until after the election,” Simone said.

After the Canadian parks commission receives the written proposal from Wallenda, Thomson said, “staff would have to review the proposal and make a report to the commission whether it was recommended or not, and the commission would have to look at the existing policy and look at what was being proposed. As you know, the existing policy precludes stunting.”

But Simone took pains to distance Wallenda from the many stunters who have ridden barrels over the falls through the years. He visited the Canadian officials “so they will see that he’s not a goofy daredevil,” Simone said.

“It’s what his family has done for seven generations, and something he’s done since he was 2 years of age,” he added.

News staff reporter Anne Neville contributed to this story.