Share this article

print logo

Drama, crowds peak for wire-walk; As thousands flocked to the world-famous falls, tension heightened over efforts to stabilize the wire after it seemed to be rolling

They came to be a part of history.

As the sun began to set and the hour drew near for Nik Wallenda's highly anticipated tightrope walk across Niagara Falls, thousands of people began to fill in on both sides of the world-famous cataracts.

Four thousand people were being allowed onto Goat Island to see the event.

"This is so exciting that we get to be here," said Elizabeth Brydges of Orchard Park. "I didn't realize it was going to be such a national event."

An hour before his walk, ABC's broadcasting team came on. The network broadcast the event live but with a seven-second delay.

"Right now, all the world is watching," a network reporter said.

The daredevil reluctantly agreed to wear a tether during his walk. ABC officials demanded he do so, but speculation was rampant throughout the day that he would ditch it.

He stands to lose an estimated $1 million from the network officials should he defy them and take it off, but the move would also cement his place in history as one of the world's greatest stuntmen.

Wallenda was using a small, wire brush to scuff the soles of his black, laced elk and suede moccasins made by his mother and designed to grip the steel cable as it gets wet.

He was later shown with his wife and children.

Adding to the already mounting drama, a broadcaster announced that an engineer had to make a last-minute adjustment to the wire. The team added an extra stabilizer to the cable because it appeared to be rolling.

ABC broadcaster Hannah Storm called it: "a very grave concern."

A meteorologist reported wind gusts of 19 mph over the falls.

A clock on the bottom left-hand corner of the screen counted down to the big moment.

The eighth-generation circus performer was preparing to be lifted up onto the wire, which was strung between giant cranes and anchored deep into the bedrock of Terrapin Point on Goat Island.

The wire was expected to sag as much as 30 feet as Wallenda takes more than half an hour to make the historic crossing -- a feat he has said he has dreamed of accomplishing since he was a child.

Tens of thousands came to both sides of the falls to share in that dream.

On the Canadian side, Tracey O'Brien, who was selling T-shirts for Niagara Parks, marveled at the mushrooming crowd. She said it was probably the most people she'd ever seen there, "except for New Year's Eve," than at any point in her 30 years working for the parks system.

Jeanne Stenborg of Houston, Texas, and Greg Cooper of Mississauga, Ont., met up at Table Rock to watch from the Canadian side.

They had picked their spot in the front row against the metal barriers along Niagara Parkway, just behind media row before 7 p.m. Both had erroneously thought the walk started at 8 -- when ABC began its coverage of the event. Wallenda wasn't scheduled to step onto the tightrope until after 10 p.m.

Still, they planned to hold tight to their prime spot.

"It has an exciting feeling," Stenborg said. "It's kind of neat to be here live."

Virginia resident Georgia Waite had no idea the walk was happening when she brought her parents to the Falls from Waite's native Peru.

They heard the hoopla Friday morning at the hotel.

"When I heard that, I started to pray for this guy," said Waite, wondering how worried Wallenda's mother must be until a reporter told her Wallenda's mother also walks wires.

Harvey and Judy Watters of Hamilton, Ont., hung a large cloth sign spray-painted with "Go Nik go, you made it!" over the rail on the grass behind Table Rock. From their vantage point, Wallenda would be walking almost directly toward them. They spent Thursday finding the perfect spot and arrived eight hours before the walk.

Elsewhere on the Canadian side, a pressed-penny vendor was drawing a crowd with special Wallenda edition pennies.

Children scrawled chalk messages for Wallenda: "Have a safe walk Nik" and "Safe journey."

One couple sitting on the grass stuck a sign in the ground with a quote from Karl Wallenda: "Being on a tightrope is living, everything else is waiting."

While crowds were large, they weren't as massive or as unruly as authorities had feared.

Canadian parks police had planned to shut down the Niagara Parkway in Ontario by 4 p.m., but because of lighter-than-expected traffic it wasn't closed until almost 7 p.m.

At Table Rock, sisters Debbie Ailinger and Patti Banko of Lancaster came up early and had no problem with traffic. They came, Ailinger said, "to be part of history. Once in a lifetime."

Reporters T.J. Pignataro, Kathleen Ronayne, Denise Jewell Gee, Marwa Eltagouri and Anne Neville contributed to this report.