'Human Fly' Frightened by WTC Fate

ByABC News via logo
March 14, 2002, 12:55 PM

March 17 -- After his 3½-hour climb up the South Tower of the World Trade Center on a sunny spring morning in 1977, George Willig was called fearless, and popularly hailed in the city as "the human fly."

But as Willig, now 51, toured the wreckage of the towers at Ground Zero in New York City recently, like many Americans he was "frightened."

"I saw the horrific events, but I was very frightened," Willig said this week on ABCNEWS' Good Morning America. "I had just such a mix of emotions. It was impossible to really describe what it is. Utter disbelief.

"My initial reaction when I saw the buildings collapse, being attacked, was that I just thought, 'If my climbing played any part at all in them becoming an attraction to terrorists, I wish I'd never done it,'" he added.

Folk Hero in Slumping City

But back when Willig, a 27-year-old toy maker and amateur rock climber from Queens, New York, scaled the tower on May 26, 1977, New York City was in the financial doldrums. Willig was hailed as a folk hero and credited with lifting New Yorkers' sagging spirits.

He climbed the buildings because they were there, he said, and he wanted a challenge. He planned it for a year, telling only a few family members and friends.

"I built my own clamping devices that fit into steel tracks that run up and down the building," he recalled. "Those tracks are used to guide window washing equipment that gets lowered from the top."

As he saw his devices were working well, he knew he would make up all 110 stories, he has said.

Winning Friends, Influencing People

About halfway up, the police tried to stop him.

"They're in a window-washing scaffolding that's used to service the washing equipment, and they were lowered next to me," he told ABCNEWS' Diane Sawyer. "And what I did is I lowered myself from a rope to swing out of their way. They couldn't reach me anyway from where I originally started out."

Eventually, Willig won over the police and they allowed him to continue, following his progress from inside the building.