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Will Wallenda do ultimate dare?; Question of daredevil unhooking tether during walk stirs speculation

In meeting the demands of two governments, a television network, corporate sponsors and throngs of reporters, Nik Wallenda has acted like a diplomat.

The question is whether -- on the worldwide stage -- he will act like a defiant daredevil tonight.

TV executives say Wallenda must wear a safety tether from the minute he steps out on the wire until he makes it to solid ground in Canada.

But a slew of officials surrounding the spectacle say the daredevil might just tempt fate above the Mighty Niagara by unhooking the harness when he is part way across.

"I'm betting he takes it off," said State Sen. George D. Maziarz. "I guess we'll see."

It would be the ultimate reality TV, with hundreds of thousands of onlookers -- not to mention sponsors -- holding their breath, and maybe shielding their eyes.

Nearly 200 feet above the swirling river without a harness, Wallenda would put to rest any notion that his stunt is anything less than death-defying.

But by doing so he could also lose out on television money and most importantly, his life -- and possibly scar the brand of Niagara Falls in the process.

"It's central to our agreement that he will have the harness connected, and we expect that's going to be exactly what happens," said Jeffrey W. Schneider, senior vice president of ABC News.

What would happen if Wallenda, for safety reasons or otherwise, gets rid of the tether after he starts the walk?

"That's a pure hypothetical, which we don't expect in any way," Schneider stressed. "He's going to wear the harness, and it's going to be a spectacular wire-walk."

While ABC officials say the deal they have with Wallenda mandates he wears the tether for the entire walk, one of his lawyers said the daredevil may have a different interpretation.

Three other officials also said they believe he might detach the tether once he gets on the wire.

Wallenda said Thursday afternoon he plans to wear the harness. It's about showing respect and demonstrating integrity to his partners, he said, adding that wearing a harness does not take away from the daredevil aspect of the event.

The harness "doesn't keep me on the wire; it just keeps me safe from dying," he said.

His people have maintained that he has the right to take it off should it get snagged on the wire.

"If it was a position of life or death, yes, he would be able to unhook it," his father and safety point man, Terry Troffer, told The Buffalo News.

Wallenda is wary of the harness getting caught on the counterweights that will hang from his wire like pendulums and prevent the wire from twisting.

His father and uncle worked to design a system for bypassing the counterweights, but even they were less than enthusiastic Thursday about the thought of the tether crossing those weights.

"It's the worst possible circumstance, having to [design] something that's a show-stopper under emergency conditions," said his uncle, Mike Troffer.

"Another six months [of design] would have been nice," added Wallenda's father.

Wallenda practiced with the device in a fenced-off area of Niagara Falls State Park on Thursday, away from the view of most reporters and spectators. The device appeared to pass over the pendulums successfully but caught, to a minor degree, once or twice.

He has compared wearing the tether to driving a car on the wrong side of the road. Never before has he worn the device, and he was visibly frustrated when ABC told him last month he had to wear it.

Tonight at 10:15, tens of thousands will be on hand to see whether he actually keeps it on.

No boats will be available for rescue operations, officials said. Should Wallenda fall into the gorge near the Canadian side, an Erie County Sheriff's helicopter and a Canadian helicopter would be used for rescue.

If he falls into the water near the American side, rescuers would search for Wallenda downstream, Page said.

Wallenda assured reporters during the Thursday afternoon news conference that he was not nervous at the prospect of traversing the falls.

"It's more anticipation than anything, but it's coming down to the wire, no pun intended," he said.

He acknowledged that he is "losing money" because of the enormous expense that was involved in securing permits and paying for security, but it speaks to how much he loves what he does.

"So, if it's going to cost me a little money to do what I love, it's going to cost me a little money," Wallenda said.

Wallenda told reporters that his family is not unduly worried about his safety. His children understand that "it's just Dad at work." He recalled looking down from a wire a year ago when he crossed the Allegheny River in Pittsburgh and seeing his sons busily playing Nintendo.

Wallenda has no superstitions of any kind, so he does not plan to carry a special trinket or good luck charm with him today.

"I'm very relaxed. We're making history [today]. Seriously," he said.

If Wallenda takes off the tether, some doubt that ABC would cut away from the coverage when it has millions of eyes glued to their screens.

"It's gonna add to the drama," Maziarz said.

Either way, Wallenda tonight will complete a tumultuous journey that will land him in the history books at Niagara Falls and throughout the world.

The idea for the stunt started when Wallenda visited the falls as a 6-year-old and it became a possibility when a controversial Niagara Falls developer offered to make the dream a reality.

It gained steam when Wallenda was able to wade through the red tape that prevented his predecessors from getting approval for the walk. With the help of some well-placed politicians, he overcame anti-stunting laws in the U.S. and Canada that have existed for more than a century.

Like his predecessors, Wallenda hopes the stunt will make him a legend along the lines of the Great Blondin, who first crossed the gaping gorge, and cement him as a true son of Niagara.

That likely will happen -- if he is successful.

We find out tonight.

News Staff Reporter Harold McNeil contributed to this report.

email: cspecht@buffnews.com