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For Wallenda tickets, a race to the wire; 4,000 free seats were gone in four minutes in frantic rush that caused website to crash

Tickets to watch from the American side as Nik Wallenda wire walks across Niagara Falls were distributed within four minutes Friday, leaving officials shaking their heads at the public interest in the event.

"We've never seen anything like this," said State Parks spokeswoman Angela P. Berti. "It's a once-in-a-lifetime, first-in-modern-day event. We're thrilled there's so much excitement about this event."

The demand was so great, the phone system and website of the Niagara Tourism & Convention Corp. crashed Friday morning after being overloaded with requests for the 4,000 free tickets, officials said. The website walkthefalls.com had about 9,000 visitors shortly after 9 a.m., they said.

"We know there are a handful of people who are disappointed, but at the same time folks were able to get through and secure tickets," Berti said.

Most of the tickets were reserved by Western New Yorkers, though people called in from Pennsylvania, Ohio and as far away as California, said John Percy, president and chief executive of the tourism agency.

Those tickets are good for seating at Terrapin Point on Goat Island, the only spot on the American side that will give a clear, close-up view of the daredevil's walk over the Canadian Horseshoe Falls.

The vouchers can be redeemed for wristbands on June 15 at the Niagara Falls State Park Visitor Center, the Cave of the Winds information kiosk in the park or the Niagara Tourism and Convention Corp. visitor information tent on Old Falls Street.

Officials stress they will be watching for counterfeit tickets, and photo identification is needed to redeem the wristbands. The tickets have no cash value.

Wristbands are not required for access to other areas of the park, which will remain open on the day of the wire-walk. Access to the main park areas are free, while parking is $10.

There are other options for those who didn't get a ticket on Friday.

Big-screen televisions will be set up on Old Falls Street in the city, where a "sideshow" of daredevil-related activities begins at 11 a.m. and includes a small wire for children to practice walking on.

But for those who want to see the stunt with their own eyes, crossing into Canada holds the most promise. The stretching parkland can hold up to 60,000, officials estimate, and another 40,000 could see the event from other downtown viewpoints like the hotels and casinos that tower over the falls.

No tickets are needed to see the event in Canada.

>Rooms filling

Hotel rooms on both sides of the border are also going fast.

About 300 rooms remain downtown on the American side for the night of June 14, while about 200 rooms remain for June 15, the night of the walk. That means 90 percent of the rooms are already sold out.

In other areas of the city, like the Niagara Falls Boulevard motel strip, about 650 -- or 43 percent -- of the rooms remain.

Published reports have identified the Canadian side as having similar numbers, though there is a greater range in price in Canada and more expensive hotels -- with a greater view of the falls -- are available.

>Another danger

Bird watchers in Canada think the mist of the falls won't be the daredevil's only obstacle.

Various media outlets have reported that the Canadian Peregrine Foundation is warning of an attack on Wallenda by a family of peregrine falcons who nest in an area below the falls.

While Wallenda insists there are things beyond his control, Christopher Hollister, associate librarian at the University at Buffalo, thinks the attack is a real risk.

"Peregrines reach speeds of 200 mph during a hunting swoop," Hollister said. "Being hit by a bird moving at that speed would have quite an impact on a man trying to balance on a high wire."

email: cspecht@buffnews.com