Philippe Petit, Legendary Aerialist Who Walked Between the Twin Towers, Reflects on His Daring Feat 44 Years Later

This week marks 44 years since Petit, then 24, orchestrated one of the most death-defying acts of all time — walking on a wire only as wide as a few Starbucks straws— between the World Trade Center towers as daylight broke on lower Manhattan.

More than four decades may have gone by, but Philippe Petit is just as spry as ever, and he’s not about to hang up his wires anytime soon. 

This week marks 44 years since Petit, then 24, orchestrated one of the most death-defying acts of all time — walking on a wire only as wide as a few Starbucks straws between the World Trade Center towers as daylight broke over lower Manhattan.

Dabbing sweat off his brow on a scorching day in New York City, the famed aerialist’s recollection of that overcast Aug. 7 morning in 1974 is effortless.

“I don’t have to make any thoughts to relive it," Petit told from inside the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, where he has been an artist in residence for nearly 40 years. "It just comes back as if it were yesterday."

Onlookers gawked as Petit crossed the void between the Twin Towers eight times. At one point, against the logic of anyone who gets queasy with heights, he gazed downward to the streets below.

"There were people looking up, and I look all the way down — and I loved it!” Petit said. "And it was amazing, because people were little ants, little dots, like I must have been for them. 

"And I will never forget that. The picture I took in my head of that scene, it was beautiful and frightening and unique.” 

His friends later told him he was out there on his wire for 45 minutes before ending the bold stunt at the urging of the New York Police Department as rain clouds approached.

He was arrested and charged with criminal trespass and disorderly conduct. The case was dropped, however, when Petit agreed to stage a performance for children in Central Park.

Even decades later, Petit’s performance in the sky has been the subject of numerous books and films. A documentary on the feat, “Man on Wire,” won an Academy Award for best documentary in 2008.

Petit balances an Oscar on his chin after "Man on Wire" won best documentary. - Getty

In 2015, Joseph Gordon-Levitt starred as Petit in “The Walk,” a critically acclaimed movie about the stunt, which was directed by Robert Zemeckis.

Now, just shy of his 69th birthday, he still practices his craft — including juggling, magic and, of course, wire-walking — for three hours a day, six days a week.

Tragedy Strikes the Towers

As they planned the World Trade Center walk, which they dubbed “le coup,” Petit and his co-conspirators took to calling the mammoth skyscrapers “his towers.” 

“I would call them my towers because I was, day and night, learning from them and getting information and blueprints and articles to get to know the towers,” Petit said. “I would visit them for eight months in New York, measuring things secretly, taking some pictures, [learning] where to attach the cable, how to pass the cable across. 

“So after all those years and months of studying them for my illegal walk, of course they were ‘my towers’ and that’s how my friends would refer to them."

But that all changed on Sept. 11, 2001, when a despicable act of terror brought them down in a cloud of dust and ash. Petit remembered the dark day when he learned of the tragic news.

“My friends in the country in upstate New York call me and they said, ‘Philippe, Your towers are being destroyed.’ And I look at the sky because I knew there was a plane involved and it was a magnificent day and I knew — my intuition was — this is not an airplane accident. It was something else.

"So I run to my friends at the top of the hill and I sit in front of the television like millions of other people and I saw my towers being attacked and destroyed and taking with them thousands of lives. So from that day I will stop saying ‘my towers.’ I will say ‘our towers.’”

There’s Not an App for That

Without the luxuries of gadgets and smart phones, the planning that went into the Twin Towers walk required reading and careful examination of photos and blueprints Petit obtained while posing as a journalist on the roof of the towers.

Today, Petit shuns most modern technology, preferring books over any of the latest tech Apple and Microsoft have to offer. He spent several years building a barn on his upstate New York property, using only 18th century tools and methods.

“I am not a man of electronics,” he said. “I barely can use the computer. I’m starting to have a cellphone for emergency reasons, but I don’t subscribe to hundreds of apps. And when I want to go somewhere, I get a map or I ask people.”

When asked about the new generation of daredevils using selfie sticks, Instagram and YouTube to capture themselves atop the world’s tallest buildings today, Petit scoffed. 

“Personally, I don’t call them selfies — I call them selfish!” he said. “It’s so … I don’t know, so centered on yourself.”

He added: “If you consider it as a sacred space, as a place that is unique and marvelous and full of miracles, you’re not going to bring 21st century gimmicks there.”

Petit sees creativity as “the perfect crime,” one that should be committed often.

Petit is taken into custody following his historic walk between the Twin Towers. - Getty

“We live in a world with so many rules that it’s almost … a crime to be a creator or an inventor, a poet a wire-walker, a painter, an actor, a dancer — all those professions that need freedom and rebellion and dedication to an art,” he said. “So I think creativity is one of the most important talents that we have and I don’t see it being encouraged.”

He added: “You must break the rules. You must challenge yourself, you must surprise yourself. So creativity to me is a matter of all the actions on life.”

No Signs of Stopping

For Petit, retirement doesn’t beckon.

“I would never retire," he said. “This is my life. I would never end my life. Only when my body refuses to take my orders of walking. So I still do it.

And if asked to perform high above the bustling streets of Manhattan again, he’s ready and willing.

"I would love to have such a phone call!” he said.