The tragic history of the Wallendas

Published: Jun. 23, 2019 at 9:19 PM EDT
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SARASOTA, Fla. (WWSB) - The Wallenda family has been tempting fate for generations, but fate hasn't always been kind.

In July 1944, the Wallendas were on the wire when a fire broke out in the Connecticut circus tent. Though the Wallenda group escaped, 167 people died.

They got the nickname "the flying Wallendas" in the 40s after a fall during an Akron, Ohio performance. A reporter who saw it said, "The Wallendas fell so gracefully that it seemed as if they were flying."

Nobody was hurt in that accident.

But then, in 1962, they were attempting the seven-person pyramid in Detroit, Michigan. It's a stunt they'd been performing for more than a decade.

"As they made their way on that wire, the pyramid collapsed and two of the members were actually killed. One of my great-uncles, Mario, was paralyzed from the waist down," recalled Nik Wallenda.

There aren't many photos of the failed stunt, so Nik says there's no real explanation as to what went wrong. He did say the person on the front of the pyramid was not feeling well that day.

The two troupe members who died are buried in Sarasota. During that same accident, Nik's great-grandfather and family patriarch Karl Wallenda, who also fell and broke his ribs, managed to catch another performer with his legs.

In 1978, tragedy struck again. Despite decades of triumphs, including wire walks across Tallulah Gorge, the Houston Astrodome and King's Island, Karl Wallenda fell to his death in San Juan, Puerto Rrico during a stunt that by Wallenda standards was fairly routine.

"It was a walk in the park, if you will, and that was the one that took his life and that's where we've learned that you can't be complacent. I think that a lot of factors played into that and the biggest was the wire was stabilized improperly. The way it was put up, it shook under his feet and he went down to the safety of the wire," explained Nik.

Nik's father, Terry Troffer, added, "The cable was put up improperly. Not a family member. So we make sure that we always have a family member present when rigging a walk like this."

After analyzing video of that fatal fall, doctors believe the 73-year-old Wallenda may have gone into cardiac arrest as adrenaline pumped through his body.

That brings us to the Wallendas most recent harrowing setback in 2017, when a rehearsal for a new stunt - an eight-person pyramid - came crashing down on the circus floor in Sarasota.

Five of the performers fell to the ground, including Nik's sister Lijana, who broke every bone in her face and had to be placed in a medically-induced coma.

"I can relive it and see every moment of that accident and replay everything, including like watching a movie on a screen as we speak, getting to the hospital, getting out of the ambulance, every word that I said, every room that I went to, as I took phone calls going outside family members, etc. I can recall every single moment for about a two- to three-hour window," Nik said.

Nik and two other performers managed to grab on to the wire.

"I've spoke that so many times and played it in my head of here's what happens if it happens that again that's part of it. That is what we're supposed to do," Nik explained.

But that accident is still something Nik and many of his living family members have yet to move past to this day.

"I turned into a robot after the accident. I never dealt with it. I dealt with it nine months later when I was in a big top in New York City getting ready to recreate a pyramid. That's when it finally hit me," said Nik.

Despite all of this, the Wallendas refuse to let tragedy hold them back.

“We live those words I say all the time, never give up, and I say often my goal, my dream, my job is about inspiring. My goal in life is to inspire people that nothing is impossible and if I were to give up, which I did consider after as I said a while ago I thought I was going to have to because of that PTSD, how traumatic that experience was, but if I gave up how am I going to inspire people to not give up? And I think that’s something that’s just been engrained in us for generations,” said Nik.

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