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Wallenda to wear tether for wire-walk; Fearing deadly fall, ABC, sponsors insist on use of safety device

Nik Wallenda will wear a safety harness when he walks across Niagara Falls.

The daredevil said Monday that ABC-TV and other major sponsors have insisted he wear a tether during his 1,800-foot wire-walk, and the device is being designed now.

"It's frustrating. It's upsetting," Wallenda said in an interview. "To me, personally, it takes away from it."

Wallenda said his lawyers failed to convince the television network that he could make the daring cross without falling or, if he slips, he could grab the wire and hold on.

"My lawyers are saying, 'Look, we pushed. We tried,' " Wallenda said. " 'You have one option: Either you do it on ABC or you [don't] wear a harness.' "

Because of money concerns, he won't void the ABC deal, he said.

Wallenda thought he cleared all the hurdles when elected officials in New York and Ontario made exceptions to their anti-stunting laws to allow the walk.

But the sponsors, he said, fear a potential death fall could frighten TV audiences and damage their brands, something the daredevil said he understands.

But before Wallenda simulated the falls' misty conditions by walking through water shot from a fire hose, he said a tether could actually make the walk more difficult, since he has worn one only once (as a child) and has not trained with one.

"My biggest concern is that it will be a detriment, that it will actually hold me back rather than help me," he said. "I'm gonna feel like I have a leash on."

"It's something I'm not used to," he added. "It's late in the game, and [it's something] that I haven't been able to practice with. In my mind, I'll be thinking I hope it doesn't get caught."

The tether will drag behind Wallenda, said Terry Troffer, his father and safety coordinator. A national engineering firm -- the same one that designed Wallenda's cable -- is working on the tether now.

Wallenda, though, said he will insist he be able to unhook the tether if he experiences problems with it on his way across.

"If it's stuck, I'm getting rid of it. Forget it," he said. "If it's my life or the harness "

Troffer lamented the fact that the decision was beyond the reach of the Wallenda family.

"We just live in a world now where attorneys make all the decisions for us," Troffer said, referring to the television lawyers. "It is what it is."

Jeffrey W. Schneider, senior vice president of ABC News, said Friday that the network would ensure safety precautions be taken. The stunt, to be broadcast live at 10:10 p.m. June 15, will be filmed with a five-second delay.

"We're very aware of the fact that kids are going to be watching this with their parents," Schneider said.

Wallenda's wife, Erendira, said she was actually disappointed he will wear the tether. A circus performer herself, she said she was forced to wear a tether during a performance in Madison Square Garden.

"It actually almost made me fall," she said. "I don't like harnesses."

Wallenda said he thinks more people would watch the stunt if he wasn't tethered to the two-inch-wide steel cable.

"Often people say, 'More people will be watching you because they know they're not gonna see you lose your life at least.' [But] I think a lot of people want that factor in there," he said.

State Sen. George D. Maziarz, R-Newfane, said the tether doesn't take away from the drama of the stunt.

"I think people are still going to come," the senator said. "I think it still is an event that is going to be watched around the world."

Wallenda on Monday for the first time simulated the misty conditions he will experience at the falls, as a city fire truck sprayed mist at him while an air boat blew wind at him. He walked calmly through the mist and performed an impromptu half-handstand after mounting the ladder of the fire engine, to the delight of a horde of onlookers.

When it was over, Wallenda beamed like he hasn't in the past two weeks.

"I felt so good on that cable with that heavy mist and wind," he said. "Honestly, it sounds crazy, but it felt better with that than without it."

He told city firefighters, "I know it sounds weird, but it's just peaceful."

Wallenda will complete his final training sessions today from 10:30 a.m. to noon and from 3:30 to 5 p.m. outside the Seneca Niagara Casino.

email: cspecht@buffnews.com