At the time of their construction, the two buildings that made up the World Trade Center in downtown Manhattan were the tallest buildings in the world. The Twin Towers, as they were nicknamed, opened on April 4, 1973, and stood as a beacon of engineering and architectural accomplishment – of reaching to the heavens and establishing a footprint in one of our planet’s most prestigious, industrious cities. Thirteen years ago today, we lost those monuments and the thousands of lives connected to them. We’ll never forget that tragedy. But on Sept. 11, I like to also honor the legacy of the World Trade Center, and the amazing stories they inspired.
I’d never heard of the miraculous tale of wire walker Philippe Petit and his crisscrossing between Towers 1 and 2 until I witnessed James Marsh’s breathtaking 2008 documentary Man on Wire. The story, in a nutshell, breaks down as such: In 1974, Petit and a team of ne’er-do-wells broke into the WTC after hours, and smuggled their tightrope-walking equipment to the rooftop. They used a bow and arrow to fire the wire from one Twin Tower to the next. And on the morning of Wednesday, August 7, 1974, Petit stepped out onto the wire and completed eight passes at 1,350 feet in the air.
Thinking about it gives me goosebumps.
Because of Philippe Petit’s staggering accomplishment, and because of Man On Wire, the first imagery that comes to mind every time I hear the terms "Twin Towers" or "World Trade Center" do not involve the atrocities of Sept. 11, 2001. I don’t immediately flash to horrific images of airplanes flying into the sides of iconic buildings, or skyscrapers being reduced to rubble. Instead, I immediately think of that crazy Frenchman stepping out onto wire that looks about as thin as dental floss, and crisscrossing two towering edifices at impossible heights because he dreamed that it was his destiny to conquer that particular walk.
Man On Wire has become an annual watch for me, mainly because James Marsh meticulously crafts a playfully engrossing con-game story with an incredible payoff. It’s available to stream on Netflix Instant, and I’d recommend it any day of the year. But today, of all days, the documentary carries even more weight. The movie celebrates the beauty of the Twin Towers, the near-impossibility of their construction, and the pride that went into their physical existence. Philippe Petit’s interviews on behalf of Man On Wire are love letters to the creation of the World Trade Center, and he explains that his obsession with walking between them was merely a tribute to the fact that they existed.
They no longer exist. They are now a part of our collective memories. But on Sept. 11, the memory of the Twin Towers can be a little bit different. We will never forget how the buildings came down. But maybe our memories also can include something magical that happened while they still stood tall. September 11 also can be respectfully dedicated to the triumphant existence of some spectacular architectural accomplishments. And we can remember one particularly impossible story that only could have happened because of those majestic buildings, during a much happier time.