Certainly, Wallenda and O’Connell Electric are no strangers to extreme heights and supreme safety. Wallenda, 34, is a seventh-generation descendant of The Great Wallendas, a family of circus performers and daredevils— many of whom specialized in high-wire feats. O’Connell Electric, based in Victor, New York, is a century-old company that initially laid the lines to deliver power to a sizable portion of the upper east coast.
Additionally, Wallenda and O’Connell Electric have a history working together: along with his most recent Grand Canyon crossing, the company also rigged his Niagara Falls skywalk last June. To ensure a safe crossing from the American side to the Canadian side, O’Connell Electric extended a wire approximately 1,800 feet across Horseshoe Falls, the largest of the three waterfalls that comprise the Falls. In fact, the same 2-inch wire rope was used for both crossings and now has plans to be ‘retired’ at Wallenda’s home in Florida.
“We knew he had confidence in us, asking us to come back and work with him a second time,” notes Randy Fletcher, O’Connell’s General Foreman for both the Niagara Falls and Grand Canyon projects. “He knew, based on last time, that if anything came up, we could handle it, and that we’d get the job done.”
To Hellhole Bend in a Safety Basket
Both the Niagara Falls and Grand Canyon endeavors were grand in scale, requiring rigorous attention to detail and countless safety checks to ensure the integrity of the wire and all of its components. And in both cases, Wallenda and the rigging crew faced one significant obstacle that was essentially beyond their control: weather conditions.
At Niagara, they had to contend with powerful spray from the Falls, which had the potential to create a damp, slippery wire. In the Grand Canyon’s ominously named Hellhole Bend, the dry air and dust presented similar slipping hazards; in addition, unpredictable updrafts and wind gusts reaching 48 miles per hour could upset Wallenda’s balance on the wire.
While Wallenda practiced and made preparations for his death-defying feat, O’Connell’s crew played out its all-important behind-the-scenes roles. For the company’s eight workers, the remote location of the wire’s starting point caused perhaps an even greater challenge than unfavorable weather conditions.
To access Hellhole Bend, located in Navajo territory, the crew and their equipment had to be flown by helicopter across the gorge, about 20 miles from Grand Canyon National Park. This required multiple helicopter trips, but only when conditions would allow.
“Crew deployment was much easier at Niagara Falls because you could just drive right up to the site with all your equipment,” Fletcher observes.
In fact, the helicopter could not accommodate the 8-ton tight-rope cable, manufactured by Wirerope Works in Williamsport, Pennsylvania. The wire is comprised of six bundles of smaller steel wires wrapped around a wire core and is strong enough to bear the weight of a Boeing 747.
“Because we could only have the puller and tensioner on one side of the gorge, we had to rig up a special fiber line to a turning block to draw the cable across canyon,” he said. “That added to the complexity of the project.”
The team began work on June 17 and rigged the wire, measuring 1,400 feet from start to finish, on June 21.The wire, set at a tension of 62,000 pounds, has a breaking strength of 190 tons. The following day, they hung 20 pendulums, weighing 40 pounds each, along the wire at precise 60-foot intervals to prevent the wire from twisting beneath Wallenda’s feet. To accomplish this essential aspect of the project, crew members traveled to each point in safety baskets suspended from the wire.
Once their work was finished, they took turns in the safety baskets to “test the job” before they’d let Wallenda set foot on the wire.
“Everybody wanted to do it,” Fletcher recounts. “We had confidence in our work.”
Walking a Fine Line into History
Finally, the big day arrived. All eyes focused on record-setting Wallenda, who peered into the Grand Canyon poised to pursue his eighth world record. Unlike his Niagara crossing, for this skywalk he would honor the Wallenda family tradition of not wearing a harness or a tether and not using balance pole, his custom leather shoes made “with a lot of love” by his mother, Delilah, and the expertise of O’Connell Electric.
“I’ve trained all my life for this,” Wallenda explained to reporters just before embarking on his June 23 walk, which was televised live by the Discovery Channel.
Millions of viewers from 178 nations collectively held their breath as Wallenda slide-stepped one foot in front of the other, appearing calm and focused.
Fletcher watched from a pyramid set up on one side of the gorge, where Wallenda would finish.
“It was unbelievable. Prior to the event, there was all kinds of chatter and excitement, but the second Nik stepped onto the wire, you could hear a pin drop,” he said.
WNEP16, a local Pennsylvania news station, quoted Wirerope Works Design Engineer, Kim Konyar, about their role in Wallenda’s walk, “The strength is in the rope, integrity is the rope. So we just sat back, white knuckled the walk and cheered him on.”
As Nik Wallenda progressed, 35-mile-per-hour wind gusts caused the pendulums to wobble and sway, which sent the wire into a momentary spasm. Wallenda settled himself into a kneeling position, saying into his headset: “I’m just waiting for the wire to stop bouncing.”
Such precautions are an integral part of his training. He regularly conducts rescue drills to simulate a mid-air emergency. In his pre-walk interview, Wallenda explained: “If there are any issues, I’ll go down to the safety of that wire. The wire is a safe haven. I’ll go down and hold that wire until a helicopter or safety basket comes to save me.”
Those safety baskets would be the very same ones Fletcher and his crew used while setting up the wire.
“It would only take a few minutes for us to get him,” Fletcher notes. “In the meantime, Nik has ways he can sit down and wrap himself around the wire until we rescue him.”
“I’m glad we didn’t have to, that’s for sure,” Fletcher adds with relief.
Fortunately, a real-life rescue wasn’t necessary. In under 23 minutes, Wallenda reached the rim of the canyon, jog-hopping the last several feet along the wire and into the history books.