HOVERING OVER DETROIT: A Close Call on the High Wire: Tightrope Walker Gets Stuck After Malfunction

By Jim Schaefer, Detroit Free Press

Aug. 31–Yes, it was an advertising gimmick, and yes, it was show business, and yes, the flying Wallendas have walked the high wire thousands of times.

But in the city where two members of the family’s world famous act fell to their deaths nearly 45 years ago, Lijana Wallenda’s high-tension troubles Wednesday set hearts aflutter in downtown Detroit.

There she stood, frozen on the wire, 80 feet off the ground, wavering a bit as her blond curls swirled in the breeze.

“That wind’s blowing right in her face,” one nervous onlooker said from far below.

“She’s almost there!” said another.

In the hushed lunchtime crowd gathered near Campus Martius on the south side of the Compuware building, some faces turned away from the scene in the sky. Some eyes scrunched up tight. Others locked on her magnetically.

To learn how Lijana Wallenda got in that position, you must know a bit about the Wallendas, high-wire traversing superstars who have been doing crazy stuff like this since the 1700s. Lijana, 29, and her younger brother, Nik, 27, represent the seventh generation of the clan.

Normally, the Wallendas, who tour in several groups around the world, perform at fairs, carnivals and circuses. Members have tight-roped above waterfalls and in between skyscrapers. In 1962, at the state fairgrounds Coliseum in Detroit, they staged their spectacular seven-person pyramid. Tragically, three men fell to the ground, killing two of them and paralyzing a third.

The group didn’t perform the act again until 1998, when the Wallendas returned to Detroit and mastered the feat.

Which brings us to Wednesday’s event, sponsored by McDonald’s to celebrate the first year of its premium roast coffee.

The link between the coffee and high-wire walking may seem murky. But as it turns out, the Wallendas, who a McDonald’s spokesman said were paid $18,000 for their services, are fans of a good cup o’ joe.

So much so, in fact, that Nik Wallenda carried a backpack with him on his way to the middle of the wire, where he met his sister’s approach from the opposite side. They sat down together, weighted poles in their laps for balance. Nik opened his pack and pulled out a cup from which he and his sister shared some …

Well, this was a coffee ad, after all.

After several salutary toasts on high (and return gestures from those below who were in possession of free samples), Nik stood up, stepped over his sister and began the uphill walk back to safety. She began her way to the opposite side, and that’s when things got a little shaky.

As the Wallendas explained later, the cranes holding up the ends of their wire had too much stress between them, somehow causing a winch to malfunction — and it needed to rise so that Lijana could get on and be lowered.

So while brother made it quickly to his side, she teetered and tottered for an additional 10 minutes or so on her end.

The crowd, oohing and aahing and swilling, grew increasingly nervous. Nik, already on the ground, shouted to his sister to be steady as the crane on his side was moved to relieve some tension.

That did the trick, and Nik hopped onto a hook, headed back up in the air and rode to her rescue.

“Batman!” someone in the crowd observed.

“There she goes!” said Jimmy Scott, 66, of Detroit. “Amazing! Incredible! I love it!”

The relieved crowd sent up a cacophony of applause as brother and sister floated safely to earth.

“She stood there too long!” Scott said. “My heart’s pounding! Live action! I’ve never seen this before!”

Even with the prevalence of McDonald’s premium roast coffee, Scott’s exclamations seemed perfectly natural.

Contact JIM SCHAEFER at 313-223-4542 or [email protected]

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Copyright (c) 2006, Detroit Free Press

Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Business News.

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