The Day The High-wire Act Failed: The Wallendas, Detroit, 1962
The most famous high-wire act in history is the Wallenda family, known professionally as “The Flying Wallendas”.
Karl Wallenda formed his act in 1922 when he was 17 years old. Over the years, more family members were added, and they became even more famous for working without a net. They originally used nets, but thanks to forgetfulness, someone didn't pack the net before their next performance and they were pressed to perform without one. The show was a hit and they only occasionally used nets from then on.
Tragedy struck the family as they appeared before six thousand spectators at the State Fair Coliseum in Detroit, January 30, 1962.
The Wallendas were doing one of their most spectacular stunts: a three-tier, seven-person pyramid on the high-wire, a stunt they had been doing for over ten years. On the bottom tier were Dieter Schepp, Mario Wallenda, Richard Faughnan, and Gunther Wallenda. On top of them were Karl Wallenda and Herman Wallenda. And at the top, sitting in a chair was 17-year old Jana Schepp.
The act was going very well but then the pyramid began to collapse; the seven-member group began to tumble, with Richard and Dieter falling to their deaths. As Jana fell, she was caught by the family patriarch, 57-year-old Karl Wallenda, who held on as people on the ground formed a makeshift net. Once the net was ready, Jana dropped, bounced out of the net, landed and injured her head.
Mario fell but lived; however, he became paralyzed from the waist down.
Richard and Dieter were buried in Sarasota, Florida.
The remaining members of the Wallenda troupe who weren't injured decided the show must go on and proceeded to do more aerial stunts for the audience. There has never been an explanation of what went wrong, but Nik Wallenda has stated that he remembers that Dieter, who was in front on the bottom tier, was not feeling well that day.
The latest generation of Wallendas are still out there performing for packed crowds...great-grandchildren and their children are learning the trade for the future.
In 1978, Karl Wallenda, who started it all back in 1922, was performing a high-wire stunt in San Juan, Puerto Rico, when high winds caused him to fall to his death. He was 73 years old.
Flying Wallendas Tragedy: Detroit 1962
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