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Wallenda gets OK to cross the falls State Legislature bypasses stunt ban

The walk is on -- at least as far state legislators are concerned.

It might be rare for the State Legislature to approve something that legitimately can be called death-defying, but final approval was given Wednesday permitting a member of the legendary Flying Wallendas to cross Niagara Falls on a tightrope.

"I'm thrilled to death It is truly a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity," Nik Wallenda told The Buffalo News.

The daredevil artist said it would be the first tightrope walk in history directly over the falls, about 200 feet above the river. At about 2,200 feet, it also would be the longest of the more than 200 walks he's done in his career.

"Just the nature of where I'm doing it will reach around the world," he said of the location.

Wallenda said he chose Niagara Falls for its natural beauty and its history of daredevil acts.

"It's something that's been a dream of mine most of my life," said Wallenda, 32, who took his first tightrope walk at age 2 and comes from a family that has been doing acrobatic feats since the 1780s.

More than 150 years after "the Great Blondin" first walked across the Niagara gorge on a tightrope, Wallenda won legislative approval to bypass a longtime ban on stunts at the falls to become the first person since 1910 to try to legally walk a tightrope over the river.

The measure, which passed the Senate last week and was approved Wednesday by the Assembly, says a permit specifically for Wallenda is good for one year, though lawmakers believe he could make the walk this fall as part of his new Discovery Channel show, "Life on a Wire."

Wallenda said he soon will return to the falls for another scouting session to go over aspects like wind currents near the rigging spot. He said his team is studying weather trends to determine the best time for a walk, but figures it will be sometime next summer.

Winning approval from the State Legislature was the plan's biggest boost, Wallenda said, and he believes he has growing support on the Canadian side.

The high-wire artist will pay all expenses, which he declined to disclose. The costs cover a rescue team, including a helicopter pilot flying above him. Should he fall during the tightrope walk, Wallenda said, the plan calls for him to grab the tightrope and for the pilot to lower a wire to him to grab onto. He said he's never had to have such a rescue before.

Critics have said the wire walk puts not only Wallenda but tourists and possible rescue workers at risk.

A spokesman for the Niagara Park Commission in Niagara Falls, Ont., said the Canadian agency has received no formal request from Wallenda to anchor a tightrope on the Ontario side of the falls, which would be required if Wallenda plans to walk from Goat Island across the Horseshoe Falls to the Canadian side.

"We have a history of discouraging this type of activity, and the reason why is that to the Niagara Parks Commission, safety is the primary concern for our guests and for our employees," said spokesman Tony Baldinelli.

The legislation approved Tuesday says that the stunt must be approved by the state Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation.

"I would say the bill means that [the parks commission has] to sit down with Wallenda and come up with a method of making this happen," said Sen. George Maziarz, a Newfane Republican who sponsored the bill.

The bill still needs approval by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, who is reviewing it.

Maziarz dismissed critics who call the planned walk a stunt that cheapens the natural beauty of the falls.

"This is what people want to see," he said.

"This will bring a buzz. It will bring some additional focus to the state parks. I think it is all a good thing," said Assemblyman Dennis Gabryszak, a Cheektowaga Democrat, who co-sponsored the bill in the Assembly with John D. Ceretto, R-Lewiston.

He noted there will be no state costs involved; Wallenda and the Discovery Channel are paying for any expenses the walk would create on either side of the river.

Wallenda's recent daredevil acts included walking inside the "Wheel of Death" as it was hanging over the side of the 23rd floor of a Las Vegas hotel. Earlier this month, he did a high-wire act in Puerto Rico with his mother to complete a daredevil walk on the same site where Karl Wallenda, the patriarch of the acrobatic family, died in a 1978 fall.

Twelve people have attempted tightrope walks across Niagara Falls, said Paul Gromosiak, a Niagara Falls historian.

One died: Stephen Peer, who crossed successfully several times in 1887, but whose body was found on the rocks below after he presumably slipped while attempting to walk the wire at night in his street shoes.

News Staff Reporter Anne Neville contributed to his report.

e-mail: tprecious@buffnews.com