The golden anniversary of Charles Lindbergh’s flight to Paris had come and gone, and no new heroes were on New York’s horizon. Then suddenly, the city awoke one morning to find a new and vital star moving heavenward. His name: George Willig, a 28-year-old mountaineer from the lowlands of Queens. His feat: scaling the sheer northeast face of the World Trade Center’s south tower, a 1,350-foot pillar of steel and aluminum that had stood unchallenged since the assault by King Kong. When Willig looked down from the summit, after completing his three-and-a-half-hour ascent, thousands of onlookers were cheering themselves hoarse, traffic was blocked in all directions, and TV crews were aswarm. Having risked the agony (and worse) of defeat, Willig—like Lindbergh before him—was about to learn what happens to winners.
“I guess it’s okay being called ‘the human fly,’ ” he allowed later, after sober reflection, “but it would have ruined the idea of the climb if I had realized what a big deal this would be. I might not have done it if I had known.”
But fame at first was a delight and a dividend. For one thing, it helped persuade New York’s city fathers to settle a $250,000 suit against him for $1.10—”a penny a floor,” said Mayor (and mayoral candidate) Abraham Beame at a news conference the next day with the hero. By then Willig had appeared on Today and ABC’s Good Morning America—and New York’s Daily News had paid him $500 for a first-person account of his feat. “What George needs is an agent,” his lawyer, Richard Reiben, concluded. “We’ve had offers for everything from quickie novels to documentaries, but we’re not going to go P.T. Barnum. There’s probably going to be a comic strip, and there are two or three proposals for screenplays and one offer from a major publisher that would include film rights.” Also, of course, there is the matter of Johnny Carson’s Tonight show. “We’ll call them or they’ll call us,” vows Reiben, “but we’ll get George a trip to the Coast.”
Willig seems hardly the sort to go showbiz. The eldest son of a working-class Queens family, he grew up favoring solitary pursuits over team sports, and his current passions—apart from climbing—are hot-air ballooning, white-water canoeing and cross-country skiing. He holds a degree in environmental studies from St. John’s University and for the past seven months has worked as a designer for the Ideal Toy Corp. There he has turned his talents to such sophisticated playthings as Electro Man and Zog the Terrible (both battery-powered dolls). It was in the Ideal machine shop, in fact, that he designed and built the gear for his climb: two metal blocks that locked into a track that guides the Trade Center window washers’ platform. Willig prepared for the attempt for more than a year. “It was such an appealing wall,” he says, “and I’m not afraid of heights, as long as I feel secure.”
His dizzying ascent to celebrity, of course, may provide a more rigorous test of his balance. “My head is spinning,” Willig admits. “I’m beside myself with all the attention.” He still plans to climb in England this summer with girlfriend Randy Zeidberg, but beyond that, his future seems up in the air. “I intend to live up to my ideals,” he says. “I’m not discounting anything that might happen, but I don’t want to do a McDonald’s commercial or anything that might cheapen me. People just get excited when a common guy does something uncommon.”