NIAGARA FALLS — call it a filament of ambition, skill — and expectation.
When the sun rises over the Niagara Gorge this morning, it will illuminate the 2-inch steel cable that will lead Nik Wallenda from the American side to the Canadian side and into the history books, if all goes well.
Crews were working into the early morning hours today to slowly feed Wallenda’s cable, along with a smaller camera "drag cord" and much smaller fiber-optic cable, across a rope that was hung from Table Rock in Canada to Terrapin Point by helicopter at about 7:20 p.m. Tuesday.
Daniel Arenson of Haverfield Aviation of Pennsylvania piloted the craft and completed the mission in just minutes before hundreds of spectators on both sides of the border.
"It’s pretty interesting. It was fun to do. I sent a picture to my wife and said I got VIP parking in Niagara Falls. How many times do you get to land a helicopter there without anybody bothering you?" quipped Arenson after arriving safely back on land near Terrapin Point.
"It’s really not a problem [stringing the rope]," Arenson said. "The biggest issue you have as a pilot is the water moving. That can give you vertigo if you’re close to the water. … It will give you the sensation that you’re actually moving when you’re not."
Workers had to use the rope because the cable is too heavy to be pulled by the helicopter.
Haverfield was brought in to do the job after it was learned last week that another helicopter outfit did not have the proper permits.
Once Arenson’s job was done, crews started on what was expected to be a more than seven-hour process to stretch the cables across the gorge in front of the Horseshoe Falls. Large cranes were set up on both sides, ready to stabilize the the cables once they were stretched across the gorge. Officials estimated that the work would be completed by about 3:45 a.m.
Gary Raberinni, of Niagara Falls, and Ron and Teresa Rattus, of Grand Island, watched the beginning stages of the process, but they didn’t expect to stay until the job was completed. Still, it was fun just to be there, they said.
Ron Rattus likened the atmosphere at Terrapin Point to what it must have been like "in the early 1900s when the original daredevils did stuff like this."
"I just wanted to see it," Rattus said of Tuesday’s rigging. he and his wife don’t have tickets for Friday’s walk, but they plan on heading to the area to get close to the atmosphere.
For Raberinni, Tuesday was his shot to catch a glimpse of the hometown hoopla.
"We’re from Niagara Falls. It’s something to see," said Raberinni, who tried unsuccessfully to get tickets to Friday’s event but recently learned he has to travel out of town and will have to watch from afar. "I’ll watch it on TV. I think it’s good for the Falls."
State Parks Police Maj. David Page said security won’t be an issue for the event because Niagara Falls "has large crowds all the time," but he admitted that the event itself is unique in style.
Page said Tuesday’s connecting of the "messenger rope" on both sides of the gorge went as well as planned. Crews will use a winch on one end of the gorge and a stabilizing device on the other to get the cord taut, Page said.
Given the distance to be covered, it’s likely there will be at least some bow in the line, however.
Meanwhile, as crews were working to get the line in place Tuesday, Tim Clark, the film commissioner from Buffalo Niagara’s Film Office, was coordinating with the worldwide media arriving to cover the event and talking up Wallenda’s upcoming feat.
"This is absolutely the biggest tourist event in Western New York history," Clark said emphatically.
"The fact is the world will be watching that night. Hundreds of millions of people," he said. "People will have Niagara Falls on their mind whether they’re in Afghanistan, Africa or wherever."
ABC will carry Wallenda’s "Walk into History" live Friday night. The coverage is expected to be simulcast worldwide. Clark noted that besides Canadian national television, television crews from China also are in Niagara Falls and plan live coverage of the event.
"He’s our Evel Knievel for the next millennium," said Bob Swedenhjelm, a local filmmaker who was on site Tuesday making his own documentary of the events. "This footage will be seen for eternity. Now we’ll have one for our generation."
Earlier in the day, crews from O’Connell Electric of Rochester and Clark Rigging of Lockport pulled the cable from a large spool mounted to a truck in a fenced-off area of Goat Island to where a helicopter later would lift it across the gorge.
"It’s amazing," said Dan Hill, a journeyman lineman from Local 1249, International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers. "We’ve never had a job like this."
The crews tested the cable during Wallenda’s training sessions last month at the Seneca Niagara Casino, but preparing the shackles, ropes and pins needed to secure it still was a challenge, they said.
"It’s trial and error," Hill said. "It’s like a puzzle to get everything together. We’ll do our part, and it’s up to Nik to do the rest."
Like other workers, Hill realizes it’s not every day that he gets to work on such an exciting and highly anticipated event.
"I might even be the guy in the rescue basket in case something happens," Hill said. "We’re all drawing straws for that — everyone wants it."
Behind Hill, park workers readied metal barriers to place along the edge of the Terrapin Point viewing area. The barriers will keep the thrush of people about five feet away from the railings at the point’s edge. They also began fencing off the viewing area that will only include those with tickets.
Lilia Vazquez-Hunter said she planned her trip from Charlotte, N.C., around the wire-walk.
"I’m glad we’re not going to be here on the evening of the walk, because it’s going to be a zoo," she said.
She added: "I hope he’s got a good life-insurance policy."
The Owens family of Star Valley, Wyo., somehow managed to remain unaware of the event until a reporter told them about it.
"He’s Evel Knievel all over again," remarked Lori Owens.
"It’s brave or stupid, I’m not sure which one," said her daughter, Megan Owens.
Not all workers were bracing for the big event. John Elia, a State Parks worker, helped to prepare the crowd barriers but won’t watch the event live.
"I’ll be in bed by the time this guy walks," Elia said. "I’ve got to be up at 4 a.m. to do the cleanup. If they get as many people as they claim they’re going to get, it’s going to be bad."
The owners of the Niagara Daredevil Museum on Rainbow Boulevard said more families have been streaming into their doors as the event draws near.
"There’s more families and kids, and they’re staying through the weekend," said mark DiFrancesco. "They ask questions like, ‘Where exactly is he gonna go over?’ And they’re usually like, ‘That’s crazy.’"
"The young kids are more excited than the adults," he said.