40 years and six days ago, George Willig became an instant folk hero when he ascended the south tower of the World Trade Center, climbing 110 stories with all the New York-area news channels covering like crazy. It happened on 5.26.77. Apologies for not acknowledging the anniversary until today, but I’ve been running around. Here’s a portion of a piece I ran nine years ago (8.9.08) about Willig and his feat:
“A toymaker and rock-climber from Queens, the 27 year-old Willig had built a special climbing device that utilized the vertical window-washing channels in the corner of the south tower. He began his climb at 6:30 am that morning, and made it to the top three and a half hours later. When he was a little more than halfway up the cops came down on a window-washing scaffold and tried to get him to abandon the climb, but Willig refused. He was arrested when he finished, but public acclaim was so enthusiastic — the N.Y. Daily News headline hailed ‘the Human Fly!’ — that authorities only fined him $1.10, or one cent for every floor.
“I was in the midst of producing a Save the Whales benefit concert in Wilton, Connecticut. I was as blown away by Willig’s stunt as everyone else, and so I decided to invite him to make an appearance at the concert, which was held in a large amphitheatre-like area on property owned by David and Linda Black, the parents of my ex-girlfriend, Sophie Black (who later became a respected poet).
“Willig didn’t say yes or no, but I announced in the Whale concert posters that ‘the Human Fly’ would attend anyway. If he didn’t show I figured I’d just get on the mike and say ‘them’s the breaks.’
“To my surprise, Willig and a couple of friends turned up on the day of the concert — a warm sunny day sometime in mid to late July of ’77 — and took a bow before a totally cheering crowd. It was quite a moment. David Black introduced him by saying Willig ‘believed in something — he believed in himself.’
“Flash forward 31 years and everything that’s going on now including my huge enthusiasm for Man on Wire, which naturally reminded me of Willig. I read on his Wikipedia page that he’d been living in Los Angeles since the ’90s. It turns out he’s still living here, in either Woodland Hills or Canoga Park (according to online listings), and working as a commercial remodeller or something.
“A week ago I thought it might be cool to chat with Willig for old time’s sake. Maybe meet him for coffee, or maybe see Man on Wire with him, or maybe lend him a screener of it and talk to him about his reaction. Something like that. But I called three times (speaking at one point to a woman who answered the phone) and he didn’t respond. Presumably he wants to be left alone, doesn’t want to go there again…fine.
“3:05 pm Update: Willig just called. He hasn’t yet seen Man on Wire but is hoping to, he says — perhaps this weekend. He actually knows Philippe Petit, who sent Willig ‘a congratulatory telegram or card or something the day after I climbed the tower.’ And then they met at a dinner that night or the night after, at the invitation of ABC News. Willig speaks to Petit ‘every seven to ten years,’ he says. ‘We’re on different tracks although we have this bonding thing…I feel fortunate to have a brother in a sense.’
“Willig gave me the number of Michael Cardacino, a childhood friend who was there taking pictures as Willig made his ascent. Cardacino picked up and said he’d send me a scanned photo or two tomorrow.
“Willig told me there’s actually another World Trade Center stunt guy ‘whom nobody remembers…Owen Quinn, who jumped off the top of one of the towers in ’75 and parachuted down and got away.’ He lives in Moriches, New York.
“Willig is a general contractor, and is currently working on building a house — his own — in Topanga Canyon.”