The World Trade Center will now forever be synonymous with tragedy, but there was a time, 24 years ago, when the towers were better known as the stage for a brilliant act of daring. May 26, 1977, was a perfect spring morning. At 6:30 a.m., a 27-year-old rock climber from Bellerose, Queens, clipped his gear?two stirrups and a harness on nylon straps?into a custom-made clamp he had set into a window-washing channel in the corner of Tower 2 and started to climb?straight up, no net.
George Willig was a man on a mission. A year earlier, he caught a glimpse of the then-new World Trade Center. It was "shimmering with golden light with the sun low in the sky," he tells me in a phone conversation from his California home, and an irresistible idea was born: he would be the first man ever to climb a skyscraper. The idea was not as crazy at it sounds.
Willig was an experienced free climber, one of those daring souls who pit themselves against walls of rock at places like Yosemite and the Grand Tetons, armed with little more than rope, clamps and ice-cold blood. To him, the WTC's 110 stories of vertical steel was a manmade rock face begging to be conquered. There was just one big technical problem to overcome, however: how to get a foothold in the slick steel facade.
He visited the buildings over the next year, examining them for some clue of how to work it out. Willig's homework included some nighttime visits that, in those pre-terrorist days, aroused only minimal police suspicion. On one of those trips, he discovered that each tower was equipped from top to bottom with a channel to guide window-washing equipment. As a skilled machinist and modelmaker, Willig figured he could create a clamp to insert into that channel. The device that rock climbers call an "ascender" would slide up when his weight was off it but hold firmly when he leaned back against it. It took him a couple of tries to perfect the clamps?which he secretly tested on the building?but finally got them right. After a year of planning and work he was ready to go.
He would be climbing the tower at precisely the moment New York City needed an emotional lift. Thinking back to 1977, Willig remembers, "It was depressing in a way. Abe Beame was mayor and the city was in dire financial straits." And the federal government was in no mood to help us out. "A lot of people around the country thought New York was getting what it deserved." While Willig insists that his plan was "not intended in any way to make New Yorkers feel better about themselves," the timing, he says, "could not have been better."
Accompanied by his brother Steve, friend Jery Hewitt and photographer Mike Cardacino, Willig hooked himself up to the first clamp, which he'd installed in the channel the night before, and began to climb. One thousand, three hundred fifty feet of steel stood between him and the observation deck. He strolled it vertically, 18 inches at a time.
Willig climbed leisurely, all the better to savor the experience. "When I started, I felt good. I was frightened?but I was more afraid of failure than death." From the ground, he made his way in solitude and peace to the 66th floor, enjoying the glorious May weather and the unique view. By the time he got to 66, though, Willig was no longer a lone man, happily scaling a skyscraper on a nice day. Word was out. From below, thousands of New Yorkers gawked at him from the plaza. From above, the police?who did not share Willig's confidence in his climbing skills?lowered a construction scaffold to meet him.
Policeman DeWitt Allen, coming down, was the first one to reach Willig, going up. "'We've got to stop meeting like this,'" Willig recalls Allen saying, "'my wife is getting annoyed.'" Even though it was obvious that Willig knew what he was doing, the cops still wanted him to get on the scaffold to be hoisted to the top. Willig wanted none of that. He joked that he "didn't want to make a dangerous move" like riding the scaffolding.
The cops let him finish the three-and-a-half-hour climb. They didn't arrest him until after he crawled, triumphantly, through a hatch on the 110th floor and signed some autographs for them.
The response to Willig's trippily giddy trespass was immediate and ecstatic. The Daily News called him the "Human Fly"; the New York Post opted for "super 'fly.'" City officials at first planned to sock Willig with a $250,000 fine, but Mayor Beame quickly sensed that most New Yorkers loved the stunt and instead settled "out of court" for $1.10?a penny per floor?which Willig paid at a City Hall photo op the next day.
The media blitz was on. Willig buzzed from tv show to tv show, talking to Johnny Carson (and his pinch-hitter, David Letterman), Mike Douglas, Stanley Siegel and Merv Griffin. A week after the climb, the WTC's public relations company staged a ceremony on the observation deck and brought Willig back to sign his name to the tower.
Eventually the self-described "introspective loner" discovered that celebrity was more burden than pleasure, and not long after his week of fame, Willig moved to California and out of mic's way. He now leads a quiet life with his wife in a Los Angeles suburb, working as a project manager for the construction company Winn Caribe. He frequently visits family in New York and has always made it a point to visit the towers. He was last there in June 2000 to film a tv show on tall buildings for the Learning Channel.
The man who made New Yorkers feel good about the hard-to-love towers was on vacation in China when he heard the news about the Sept. 11 attack. Willig's proprietary feelings about the Twin Towers had never waned over the years, and watching CNN in his hotel in Xian, his first, emotional response to what he saw was a guilty sense that his escapade might have somehow helped turn the towers into a target.
When I asked about his signature on the South Tower, which was still visible from the Observation Deck right up until the day of the attack, his voice chokes?but he sounds genuinely optimistic when he says, "I hope they find it." And although he had "no personal ongoing relationship with anyone" who was killed in the attack, he frets about "the guys who work the automatic window-washers," the people who literally follow in his footsteps.
To raise money for relief efforts, Willig thinks it would be great to tour the country with a multimedia production to show people what the Trade Center was really like. He'd also like to be part of any reconstruction commission and is even thinking of coming back to New York to work on some of the actual rebuilding. He favors rebuilding the towers just as they were. If they did, would he climb the tower again? "I would love to climb the new World Trade Center," he says, "as part of the opening celebrations."