It was a unique event gaining worldwide attention, yet it began in the ordinary way with a visit from a potential customer.
However, this particular client was planning an extraordinary event.
Steve Clark, vice president of Clark Rigging & Rental Corporation of Lockport, N.Y., recalled one day that Nik Wallenda of the famous Flying Wallenda aerialist family “walked into our office and said ‘I’m going to walk a wire over Niagara Falls’.”
“Being prudent and cautious managers that we are, we scratched our heads and thought ‘OK, good luck!’” Clark said.
The immensity of the proposed project can be judged from his response and the fact that, in addition to handling rock scaling in the Niagara River gorge and lowering materials for the hurricane deck at the base of the falls, Clark Rigging had assisted David Copperfield vanish over the falls, carried out movie stunts for Canadian Bacon, and lowered New Year’s Eve balls in Wilson, N.Y., and Lockport, N.Y., as well as a new car in a promotion for Ford in downtown Buffalo, N.Y., in 2004.
As Clark observed of his company and Wallenda himself, “We both challenge gravity, but with the utmost respect for its ever-present force. If you fail in any way, well, you know what happens.”
So it was with that Clark Rigging became part of the historic walk. Such a feat had never been attempted before at the widest part of the Horseshoe Falls and involved a walk of over a thousand feet from Goat Island in America to the Visitor’s Center on the Canadian side.
The event took two years to plan and in part required a special New York legislative bill allowing Wallenda an exemption to the state’s anti-stunt law as well as permission from the Niagara Parks Commission (NPC). To attempt the crossing Nik Wallenda was contractually required to wear a safety tether for the first time in his career.
However, these and other complications “only made us more determined to master the Great Niagara,” Clark said.
The steel wire for Wallenda’s walk was installed by O’Connell Electric Company of Victor, N.Y. The company specializes in erecting utility distribution and high-tension transmission lines and was contracted by Wallenda to install a steel wire across the Niagara River gorge as well as the installation of a wire at the Seneca Niagara Casino practice site. The company also was involved in the design and planning process.
“We work on a lot of challenging projects,” said Michael Parkes, P.E., manager of the Power Group of O’Connell Electric Company. “But the one that comes to mind in a similar category to this was installing power up the side of Whiteface Mountain for the 1980 Winter Olympics.”
“Perhaps the toughest challenge to overcome on this project was developing and implementing a plan to pull and tension Nik’s 2-in. diameter wire across the gorge,” Parkes said.
The wire itself was approximately 2,300 ft. in total distance and weighed 7.5 lbs. per foot, about 8.5 tons or over four average sized American cars. So as the wire was reaching the Canadian side of the gorge that wire had the weight of approximately four cars strung together and also needed to be pulled under incredible tension to keep it from sagging into the water.”
Wallenda’s wire was twice as wide as the wire customarily used by the aerialist. The greater width was needed to withstand the necessary tension.
The process of stringing the wire started about 7 p.m. on June 12, 2012, and continued until 9 a.m. the next day
O’Connell Electric had procured a ¾-in.Yellow Ultrex pulling rope from Yale Cordage, headquartered in Saco, Maine, with an average break strength of 75,000 lbs., based on a working load of 15,000 lbs. with a 5:1 safety factor. The rope consisted of woven microfiber and was extremely strong.
“However, one thing we did not give enough thought to was its resistance to abrasion,” Parkes said. “Prior to hooking up the pulling rope to the helicopter so it could be flown to the American side, our crew laid the pulling rope in runs back and forth across the ground and through a pulling block to control how the rope was paid out.”
“The problem developed after the pulling rope was connected to the helicopter. At first the rope was taken out by the helicopter very smoothly, then suddenly — perhaps due to the wind above the gorge — the helicopter and the rope started to pay out much faster than our crew could safely control on the ground,” he said. “As a result, the rope twisted over on itself and when it went through the pulling block it got caught severely, damaging the rope. We were very fortunate that the helicopter had taken enough rope at that point to reach the other side and that the damaged section was able to be cut out and spliced back into good rope on the Canadian side. Without a doubt it was a nervous moment for us, but the crew remained calm and fixed the problem without issue.”
O’Connell Electric faced a number of challenges relating to the job, including obtaining insurance. It proved a difficult task.
“Our insurance company pulled our coverage, because they were not comfortable covering a stunting event. It left us searching high and low for a company that would cover us and it came at a very steep price. We also had to work out an agreement with the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) to allow our Local 1249 crew to travel and work in Canada. There were also numerous roadblocks with U.S. and Canadian Customs and the Rainbow Bridge Authority, which required a lot of paperwork and communication. In addition, we were originally planning on doing this in August and it was moved up to June, which only gave us a little over a month to lock in equipment and get set up.”
Clark Rigging supplied the Terex/Demag AC-140 170 ton on the American side and Modern Crane of Niagara Falls, Ontario, used another of the same model on the Canadian side. The cranes on each side were used for two main purposes: to elevate the wire and to apply the final 60,000-lb.-plus tension to the wire, which the puller/tensioner/pulling rope were not capable of safely achieving.
O’Connell Electric supplied the puller on the Canadian side and the tensioner on the American side. Parkes described them as “very unique pieces of equipment and extremely difficult to find in North America.”
The puller was a Hogg & Davis LT9500 with a 20,000-lb. rating from Pennsylvania and the tensioner was a Timberland PT350 with a 40,000-lb. rating brought from Nova Scotia and requiring a 300 kW generator to run.
Describing the difficulties of the job, Parkes noted that before the wire was pinned into the anchor system they had seen tensions of 40,000 lbs., adding “Because the tensions were so high and exceeded the capacity of the puller and pulling rope we needed to both double and quadruple part the rope to give our equipment the mechanical advantage.”
Another major challenge occurred when the wire was about halfway over the gorge. The tensioner started lifting off the ground and the wire began to burn through the fairlead.
Parkes described how the problem was resolved.
“We first had to open up the fairlead and allow the wire to come off the back tensioner wheel at an angle up to the block suspended from the crane, it was this tight angle and extreme tension off the fairlead that was causing the wire to burn through. In order to keep the tensioner on the ground we placed one outrigger from our 82-ft. bucket truck and distribution digger truck down on the frame of the tensioner. This was not in the original game plan, but sometimes in a pinch you need to improvise a little.”
O’Connell personnel working on the job included eight linemen, two mechanics, a safety coordinator, and a couple of project managers.
To add to the technical difficulties of planning a feat never before attempted at that specific location, installation and removal of the wire had to be carried out at night in order not to interfere with the operation of the Maid of the Mist tourist boat operations.
“Clark Rigging’s participation included attending meetings with park personnel, engineers, and the install team, receiving, storing and delivering the cable, and setting up a practice wire in the parking lot of Seneca Niagara Casino in the city of Niagara Falls,” said Melanie Parker, Clark Rigging sales administrator.
“We also handled unloading and setting up the tensioner machine, setting up the crane for installation, and the final tension pull from Terrapin Point, the oldest state park in the U.S., as well as assisting in the removal of the wire,” she said.
The equipment needed to carry out these tasks included a Demag AC110 to tension and elevate the practice wire at the casino, a Demag AC-140 to create elevation and final tension for the event and to remove the cable, and a Demag AC40-1 to elevate the camera cable. The camera cable was anchored on the U.S. side by SANY counterweights and the crane also placed counterweights for the micro-pile anchors, which were drilled 65 ft. into bedrock on both sides of the river. A Tadano ATF650XL was utilized to unload and set machinery on the American side.
With a planned 35 ft. droop in the center of the wire, to prevent twisting, 60-lb. stabilizers were attached at 150 ft. intervals. The 10 to 20 ft. long stabilizers were added by O’Connell Electric linemen, working from both countries, who hauled themselves along the cable in rescue baskets.
“It was an absolute pleasure working with the Wallenda family, very professional hard-working people as well as O’Connell Electric and Power Engineers whom were responsible for the design and engineering of this project. Great team! Job well done!” said Steve Clark.
Wallenda carried out his unique walk on June 15, 2012, in front of an international television audience as well as thousands gathered on both sides of the Niagara River. His feat ended on a humorous note. When he arrived on Canadian soil he was required to show his passport. Fortunately he had carried it across the falls with him.