NIAGARA FALLS: Nik Wallenda, a member of the famed "Flying Wallendas" family of aerialists, stepped onto a 2-inch-wide (5-cm) cable on Friday night to begin his historic tightrope walk through the mist over Niagara Falls Gorge.
Wallenda is attempting to walk from the U.S. side of the falls to the Canadian side, a journey of 1,800 feet above treacherous waters and rocks. The walk is 150 feet above the falls, he said.
More than a century ago, an aerialist known as the Great Blondin walked a high wire strung farther down the gorge, but a trek over the brink of the falls has never been attempted.
As he began the walk, attention focused on whether the 33-year-old American aerialist would keep his safety harness on as required for the daring attempt.
ABC, the television network broadcasting the event with a five-second delay, has insisted he wear a safety tether - a first for the performer - that will connect him to the cable should he fall, and will stop broadcasting if he unhooks it.
Wallenda fought the condition at first, eventually agreeing. But he gave himself an out: he will unhook only if directed to do so by his father, who designed the harness and will act as his safety coordinator.
"I'm a man of my word," Wallenda said.
ABC maintains that a problem with the tether will spell the end of the stunt.
"If there is a safety issue, if the tether gets snagged, then Nik would simply sit down on the wire. Untethered, we will not be broadcasting a live image of him," said Jeffrey Schneider, senior vice president at ABC News.
If the harnessed Wallenda falls, ABC will switch its cameras to a wider angle and begin covering the entertainment event as a news story, Schneider said.
Wallenda said roughly a billion people internationally would see his 45-minute stunt. Schneider declined to provide an audience estimate.
'ALL COMING DOWN TO THE WIRE'
Chelsea Killea, a student at the Philadelphia School of Circus Arts who drove to the falls for the event, said before the walk that she was "terrified" for Wallenda.
"We saw the cable and we said, ‘Ok. We could do that.' But as soon as you see the falls there, it's really intimidating. We're really glad he is wearing the harness," she said.
Wallenda had said he was jittery with excitement about making his childhood dream a reality.
"It's more anticipation and eagerness, but it's all coming down to the wire, no pun intended," Wallenda said at a news conference.
There were 4,000 tickets that sold out in less than five minutes when they went on sale in recent weeks, and crowds began gathering early on Friday.
"Hopefully it will be very peaceful and relaxing," Wallenda said. "I'm often very relaxed when I'm on the wire. There may be some tears because this is a dream of mine."
Since the Great Blondin took his high-wire walk, a ban has been in place on similar stunts over the famed falls. Wallenda waged a two-year crusade to convince U.S. and Canadian officials to let him try the feat. A private helicopter rescue team is part of the $1.3 million Wallenda said he had spent on the walk.
Kathy Swoffer, of Port Huron, Michigan, who set up a lawn chair hours before the event, said she had seen the Wallendas perform years earlier in Detroit.
"I think it's a person wanting to do what they do for a living and fulfilling a lifelong dream," she said. "We got our binoculars and we are good to go."
Wallenda's great-grandfather Karl Wallenda died in 1978 during a walk between two buildings in Puerto Rico at age 73. Wallenda repeated that walk last year with his mother.
Wallenda said he had obtained permits for a future walk over the Grand Canyon in Arizona, which would be the first ever attempted and roughly three times longer than the walk over Niagara Falls.