Wallenda supported, Spider-Dan nearly killed
When daredevil Nik Wallenda steps onto a tightrope high above Chicago tonight for a live TV broadcast expected to be seen by millions, the city will do everything possible to help him succeed.
Thirty-three years ago, when daredevil Dan "Spider-Dan" Goodwin climbed the then-Sears Tower and John Hancock Center, the city sent him to jail and nearly killed him.
On a chilly Veterans Day of Nov. 11, 1981, Dan Goodwin was clinging by a homemade hook to an I-beam outside the 37th floor of the Hancock Center when then-Fire Commissioner William Blair gave the controversial order for firefighters on a higher floor to let loose a fire hose on him.
"They tried to kill me," says Goodwin, who leaned to one side and then the other to keep the force of the cold water from blasting him off the side of the building. "I felt at any moment I could die, and that brought out the warrior in me."
Equally determined not to let Goodwin, who had climbed the world's tallest building (now known as the Willis Tower) on Memorial Day, make it to the top of another Chicago building, the fire department tried to block his path with long poles and even smashed windows in an attempt to grab him.
"It was very intimidating to see the ax come through the window," says Goodwin, who will turn 59 on Friday and expects to be a grandfather next year.
Realizing the danger and the liability for the city, then-Police Superintendent Richard J. Brzeczek took command of the scene, called off the firefighters and threatened to tow the firetrucks. He read a court order prohibiting Goodwin from finishing the climb.
With a mob gathered on the street below cheering, "Let him go! Let him go!" and TV stations recording the spectacle, then-Mayor Jane Byrne took an elevator to the 38th floor and leaned out a broken window to see Goodwin perched below her "like a little bird."
"I never heard of her, so when this woman sticks her head out the window, she had to introduce herself," Goodwin recalls. Byrne clearly wasn't happy with him, "but she was compassionate," Goodwin says. "The rest of the climb went really well. I was just cold."
It was an interest in safety that led Goodwin to climb skyscrapers.
Born in a hospital on Fishers Lane in Cape Porpoise, Maine, Goodwin was the first of three sons of Dale Goodwin, a contractor, and his wife, Ginny, a nurse. When his parents divorced and his mom moved to California, the 16-year-old Goodwin chose to be homeless.
"I left on Thanksgiving, and it was raining and cold," he says. Inspired by the TV show "Kung Fu" and the way David Carradine's character used spirituality and martial arts to survive on his own, Goodwin camped in the bushes of a local monastery.
A member of Kennebunk High School's class of 1975, the homeless Goodwin remained a captain on the cross-country and track teams and a co-captain of the ski team.
"I felt obligated to my team, and I really wanted to compete. That kept me in the game," says Goodwin, who made money working on fishing boats and for local builders. "I saved up enough money to buy 63 acres in northern Maine."
His introduction to climbing came when he was 22 and hiking near the Old Man of the Mountain rock formation in the White Mountains of New Hampshire.
"I looked up and I saw this person falling. I jumped back because I thought he was going to fall on me," Goodwin remembers. "The rope caught him, and he was safe, and he was pumping his fist and laughing. I thought that was the coolest thing."
He hitchhiked to The Gunks, a popular climbing area outside New York City. Wearing tennis shoes and having no gloves or rope, he climbed 500 feet up the rocky cliffs and soon befriended other climbers. That spring, he moved to California and climbed all over Yosemite National Park. He did the same in the Red Rocks outside Las Vegas, where he made money in construction as "the roof expert."
Witnessing the MGM Grand fire on Nov. 21, 1980, Goodwin fell back into his experience growing up in Kennebunkport, Maine, where every able adult was a volunteer firefighter.
"It was obvious they were overwhelmed. I just ducked under the tape and was going to volunteer," he says. "We heard this bloodcurdling scream, and we turned and saw a woman fall to her death."
Goodwin told the firefighters who stopped him that he had seen climbers use helicopters and ropes to save people on cliffs.
"Have you ever climbed a building?" a fire official asked Goodwin. "Well, until you do, don't tell me how to rescue people in a building."
The message hit home. "So then I knew what I was going to do," says Goodwin, who immediately made plans to climb Chicago's Sears Tower, the tallest building in the world at the time.
Another daredevil's attempt to climb the Sears Tower was thwarted when the fire department moved a window-washer platform into his path. Watching workers use suction cups to carry heavy plates of glass in the wake of the Vegas fire, Goodwin thought he could use suction cups to move sideways and avoid anything blocking his way up. Fire Commissioner Blair boasted that no man could climb the Sears Tower unless he was "Spider-Man." A friend who was a costume designer in Vegas made a Spider-Man suit for Goodwin.
The night before his climb, Goodwin borrowed a ladder from a man he met in Lincoln Park so he could reach the base of the Sears Tower. From there he used camming devices (a rock-climbing tool that expands in crevices), skyhooks (another rock-climbing tool that hooks over edges) and his suction cups.
"The only way I could get around the window washer was to traverse around that with suction cups," says Goodwin, who trained himself to go against the natural instinct to cling to the building. "The technique with suction cups is a bit creepy. If I lean back it actually increases its suction. As you lean back, you can actually see the glass flex. It's a weird feeling."
Police arrested him at the top and charged him with various misdemeanor crimes. Sears dropped the charges and a spokesman read a proclamation praising the spirit of "Spider-Dan."
"Anybody who could climb the world's tallest buildings would have to be considered some sort of a legend," said "Spider-Man" creator Stan Lee, who later hired Goodwin to appear in a TV show. "I would like to think that his climbing the building was definitely a tribute to the spirit, to the essence, to the heroism that is Spider-Man."
Goodwin climbed the Renaissance Tower in Dallas on his 26th birthday in between his Chicago climbs. He says he was paid $30,000 to climb two skyscrapers in Caracas, Venezuela, as part of a television production in 1982. He climbed the North Tower of the World Trade Center in 1983, a TV building in Japan in 1984. To raise money for World Hunger, he scaled the Bonaventure Hotel in Los Angeles in 1985. He set a record by scaling both sides of the 100-story CN Tower in Toronto in two hours in 1986.
In 2000, he was diagnosed with stage IV colon and rectal cancer and underwent surgery, chemotherapy and radiation. "At one point they stopped my treatment and told me to get my affairs in order," says Goodwin, who miraculously recovered.
To celebrate his 10th anniversary of being cancer-free, Goodwin used suction cups to climb San Francisco's Millennium Tower in 2010. In March, he climbed a building in Santiago, Chile, for another TV show. He's about to publish a book titled, "Untethered: Removing the Constraints of the Mind."
"It's all in the mind," says Goodwin, who also gets hired as a motivational speaker helping people overcome fear. "It (height) is just a visual thing. It's how your mind interprets it."
Newly married to fellow climber Cynthia Ado and enjoying time with his adult son Keeya, Goodwin makes his home in Mountain View, California, and works on his websites -- dangoodwin.com and an "Xtreme Athletes" site called tripleblack.com.
Saying he'd love to return to Chicago and climb the Willis Tower and the Hancock in a single day, Goodwin says he's thrilled for the chance to watch tonight's TV broadcast of Wallenda's wire walk.
"Something happens when your life is on the line. There is no pain. There is no tired," Goodwin says. "When Nik steps out on that wire, he's going to be there. He has to be in that place. We all have one thing in common. When it comes time to do what we do, we drop into this zone. There is bliss."
Obstacles: 'Spider-Dan' says he'd love to climb Willis, Hancock buildings in same day
What: Nik Wallenda will walk a tightrope more than 50 stories high between the Marina City towers and across the Chicago River to the Leo Burnett building.
Watch: 6 to 8 p.m. today on the Discovery Channel, or from viewing spots along Wacker Drive from Clark Street to Dearborn Street and from Wabash Avenue to State Street.
Closures: From 5 p.m. until midnight today, Chicago will close Wacker Drive from Clark Street to Wabash Avenue, as well as State Street and Dearborn Street from Lake to Kinzie streets. Police and security crews will control local access to buildings in that area.
To see his view: Check out skyscraperlive.com.