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A fine line between stunt and safety; Potential for tragedy is real in wire-walk at brink of falls

Nik Wallenda on Wednesday set the date June 15 -- for his wire-walk across Niagara Falls, a network television special in early evening with the illuminated falls as a dramatic backdrop.

Local officials hailed the date as a history-making one that will draw millions of worldwide viewers and free publicity that could last a generation for a tourist attraction sorely in need of it.

But with all the hype and hoopla over the upcoming tightrope extravaganza, there's no escaping the fact that Wallenda will be attempting a truly death-defying act.

So what would happen if he fell?

Wallenda won't be in a safety harness and refuses to be tethered in any way to the wire he will cross. Nor will there be any kind of a safety net beneath him.

He has offered an elaborate safety plan involving a hook he'll carry with him that he could snap onto the line, should he start to fall.

But what if it doesn't work?

"No one has ever walked that close to the falls," said Paul Gromosiak, a Niagara Falls historian and author of "Daring Niagara: 50 Death-Defying Stunts at the Falls."

"Never," he emphasized. "Wallenda will be the first and probably the last. Hint, hint, hint. I don't think he's going to make it."

Gromosiak, who is adamantly against any daredevil acts at the Falls, said he hopes he's wrong, but he thinks there's a good chance Wallenda won't survive.

The winds and mist from the falls can be extreme, Gromosiak said. He pointed out the strong, gusty winds and spray that drench tourists at the Cave of the Winds.

"Why do you think they call it the Hurricane Deck?" asked Gromosiak, referring to the deck that brings tourists about 20 feet from the Bridal Veil Falls. "He won't even see his hand in front of his face, the mist will be so dense."

Wallenda acknowledges the danger of making the first wire-walking attempt directly over the Horseshoe Falls.

"Every single one is serious. Every single one is dangerous," he said, adding later, "The weather -- that's one thing I can't control."

But Wallenda believes his training -- and the 100-ton weights that anchor the cranes holding the wire -- will keep him safe. To simulate the gusty winds, he'll train May 10-24 at the Seneca Niagara Casino while being blasted with spray and high wind simulators.

"This is something I've trained for my entire life," he said. "I've trained in 90 mph winds, with gusts of 60 mph, rainy conditions. We try to re-create the worst case.

He'll also wear moccasins of suede and elk skin made by his mother. The shoes are made to grip the wire once they get wet.

Wallenda planned to have a rescue helicopter on standby, but safety officials nixed that plan because of the large crowds. Instead, Wallenda said Wednesday, cable cars will be stationed at both ends of the wire, and rescuers will roll out to him should something happen.

That plan, though, is predicated on the idea that Wallenda grabs the wire -- something his great-grandfather, Karl Wallenda, failed to do when he fell to his death in Puerto Rico in 1978.

"I don't think anyone can prepare for what happens at that point," said Wallenda. "It would make it hard on my kids, that's for sure."

Wallenda's two young sons, ages 14 and 11, will be watching, along with his wife, Erendira, an eighth-generation trapeze artist.

"He's not going to [fall]," Erendira Wallenda said. "I just try not to think about that. It's just like anybody -- you get in a car and you could get in an accident and die."

Gromosiak worries that Wallenda's stunt, whether he lives or dies, will encourage more daredevils. He's also concerned that if Wallenda fell to his death, it would prove a shocking blow to viewers -- and the region's psyche, perhaps on the scale of the assassination of President William McKinley at the 1901 Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo.

"It will be comparable to that but even worse," he said, given that the event will be witnessed by hundreds of thousands of people on both sides of the border and broadcast live across the country and, probably, the globe.

"It will be the ultimate reality TV," said Gromosiak.

The idea of a nationally televised death has tourism officials cringing.

"It's a possibility," said Melissa Morinello, marketing director of the Niagara Tourism & Convention Corp. "Regardless, we're going to be known as the place Nik Wallenda walked across Niagara Falls. If it happens that Nik Wallenda falls, it may be known as that. But we're obviously hoping for the best and a great walk."

There's no question people are going to watch because something could go wrong, said Michael Poulin, assistant professor of psychology at the University at Buffalo.

"It wouldn't be exciting for people if, to be blunt about it, he was doing it with a giant net," Poulin said.

In terms of safety, Niagara Falls Mayor Paul A. Dyster said, he's more concerned about crowd control and how to keep people from climbing on the walls of the gorge for a better view of the stunt.

As for what would happen if Wallenda's stunt ends in catastrophe, Dyster said, he doesn't believe it would ultimately harm the falls' reputation.

"I think the story line is man versus Mother Nature," he said, pointing out that it's no secret people have fallen to their deaths at the falls, either in accidents or in suicides.

"If Mother Nature wins, maybe, in a way, that heightens the mystery of the falls," Dyster said. He quickly added: "I'm not suggesting I'm rooting against him."

State Sen. George D. Maziarz, R-Newfane, and Assemblyman John D. Ceretto, R-Lewiston, drafted the legislation -- later signed by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo -- that made Wallenda an exception to the state's anti-stunting law.

The state also bears no legal liability if Wallenda falls to his death, a State Parks spokesman said.

"He said to me, 'I'd rather die living my dream than not have my dream,' " Ceretto said. "He's conquered fear."

Maziarz is confident that Wallenda -- having satisfied engineers and safety officials with his detailed plan -- will make the trip safely.

"I don't even think about failure," he said. "Failure is not an option."

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Walking the wire

Daredevils who crossed the Niagara Gorge on a wire:

*1859: Jean Francois Gravelet, aka the Great Blondin, became the first to cross

*1860: William Leonard Hunt, aka Guillermo Farini, Lockport native who challenged Blondin

*1873:Henry Balleni, jumped into the river using rubber cord after walking wire

*1876:Maria Spelterini, only woman to cross; wore peach baskets on her feet

*1887: Stephen Peere, crossed once but was found dead after second attempt

*1890: Samuel John Dixon, first to need permission to perform stunt

*1892: Clifford M. Calverly, bank president who performed fastest crossing at 32 seconds

Source: "Daring Niagara: 50 Death-Defying Stunts at the Falls" by Paul Gromosiak