Karl Wallenda’s final – and tragic – tightrope walk was caught on video in San Juan, Puerto Rico.
Karl Wallenda had been performing stunts since he was six years old. He’d been trained to walk on a highwire, cycle across a tightrope, and balance as part of a seven-man pyramid. For him, it seemed, nothing was impossible.
Then, on March 22, 1978, the world watched in horror as Karl Wallenda fell to his death. As he attempted to walk across a high wire strung between the two towers of the Condado Plaza Hotel in San Juan, Puerto Rico, the 73-year-old Wallenda lost his balance, teetering on the wire for 30 heart-stopping seconds before plummeting 10 stories.
Karl Wallenda’s death might not have been so highly publicized had it not been for his reputation, and the fact that it was broadcast on television.
Wallenda was part of the Flying Wallendas, also known as the Great Wallendas, a traveling daredevil circus family from Germany. Wallenda formed the group in 1922, after training with another performer while in his teens. He enlisted his sister, a girlfriend, and a friend of his from school, all of whom had circus training, to join him in creating their traveling balancing act.
The group toured Europe for several years, performing tightrope walking, highwire bicycling, and perfecting a seven-person act in which the group sat on a stacked pyramid of chairs, while high in the air.
Eventually, they were noticed by John Ringling, who hired them almost immediately to perform at the Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey Circus. A few years later, they debuted at Madison Square Garden in New York City to a standing ovation.
The Flying Wallendas soon gained international fame for their impressive acts, almost entirely developed by Karl Wallenda. Over the years he’d gotten married, and had several children, all of whom joined the family business, along with their respective significant others and their own children.
However, as impressive as the acts were, they were dangerous as well.
During a performance at the Shrine Circus in Detroit in 1962, their signature seven-man pyramid caused mayhem, when the frontman faltered and the entire group collapsed. In the fall, Wallenda’s son-in-law, tightrope partner, and nephew were all killed. Wallenda’s son Mario was paralyzed from the waist down, and his niece sustained a head injury after bouncing out of the safety net.
During a performance a year later, Wallenda’s sister in law fell to her death from a tightrope, and a few years after that, Wallenda’s son-in-law was electrocuted after accidentally grabbing a live wire during a stunt.
Despite all of the tragedies associated with his act, Wallenda soldiered on, continuing to perform with smaller groups, and even by himself as a solo act.
Wallenda made history several times, performing a high-wire walk across the Tallulah Gorge, and breaking a world high-wire walk record by walking 1,800 feet across Kings Island.
He performed his stunts into his 1970s, taking on every challenge with the same excitement he had all his life, including his final, fatal walk.
His final stunt was captured on live television, by a local film crew who had come out to watch the show. A later investigation revealed that a combination of high winds, and the fact that the wire had been improperly secured was what led to Wallenda’s tragic death.
Though he’s long gone, Wallenda’s legacy lives on, through his great-grandson Nik Wallenda. Nik followed in his great-gandfather’s footsteps, and continues to perform alongside his siblings, hoping to honor the legacy that Karl Wallenda spent his life building.