"When I look at that footprint, I immediately rebuild in my mind the two towers exactly as it was, where it was," the French tightrope artist says
Credit: Alan Welner/AP; Stephen Voss/Redux

On a shimmering day in August 1974, Philippe Petit balanced precariously on a wire 110 stories above Manhattan – and looked down.

The brazen French tightrope performer, then 24, had just orchestrated an elaborate coup that saw him and a band of accomplices sneak equipment to the rooftops of the World Trade Center’s Twin Towers. There, they strung a cable between the two buildings and set the stage for a white-knuckle performance by Petit, who sauntered back and forth on that wire for 45 minutes before he was nabbed by police waiting for him at the edge of the South Tower.

“From the middle of the wire, I saw the beauty, the void, the amazing line of the perspective that brings you down a quarter of a mile,” Petit, now 66, tells PEOPLE of the heart-stopping view below. “I was not afraid, and I was happy to look at it, and I photographed it in my head.”

Petit’s rapturous act remains an indelible snapshot in itself: Fourteen years after the Twin Towers were destroyed, the sight of a Lilliputian wire-walker – dwarfed by the colossal force of two looming structures that taunted and tested him – is an emotional vision to those seeking to remember the towers in all their exultant beauty. He may not have realized it then, but four decades after he took his first step on that wire, Petit’s astonishing feat has become both solemn homage and poignant epitaph to the towers’ memory.

“I am a very positive man in life, I like to create, I like to build. So when I look at that footprint, as they call it, I immediately rebuild in my mind the two towers exactly com’era, dov’era, say the Italians – as it was, where it was,” notes Petit, whose story has become the inspiration for the new film The Walk, starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt as the Frenchman.

Petit says the towers were forever transformed after he scaled them.

“It is true that the towers before my walk were not liked, generally speaking, by New York. They thought it was two, I don’t know, like, file cabinets. It was unhuman, inhuman,” he says.

“After my walk, everybody in New York – the intelligentsia, the artists, the politicians, the inhabitants – everybody agreed that the towers were now liked by them because I had rendered them human,” he explains. “They said that, not me, and it was the greatest homage to what I had done.”

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Petit, who has lived in New York for more than 30 years and once had a downtown loft with a view of the towers, was upstate in the Catskills during 9/11.

As he remembers the towers that once called to him – and as he relives his historic feat through a movie that now brings them back to vivid life – Petit says he prefers to focus on the “joy and resplendence” that their memories conjure.

“This film is going to give people a slice of life about those towers, because a slice of death we know very well, and we will never forget,” he says. “But it is good in life to remember the extremes – the sorrow and the tears, but then the laughter and the joy.”