The Flying Wallendas' Deadly Tightrope Accident

By | January 19, 2022

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Members of the Flying Wallendas tightrope-walking family perform the seven-person Great Pyramid at the Michigan State Fair Grounds in Detroit, MI, at the Shrine Circus. (Andrew Cutraro/AFP via Getty Images)

If the words "Wallenda" and "flying" ring a vague sort of bell, you may be remembering when Nik Wallenda crossed Niagara Falls in 2012 and then the Grand Canyon the next year on a tightrope with no safety gear. It turns out Wallenda is a seventh-generation member of a family of tightrope walkers, and his daring is even more impressive considering the family lost several members in a tragic tightrope accident in the '60s.

The Flying Wallendas

The Flying Wallendas, as the family became known, began with Karl Wallenda, who was born into a circus family in Germany in 1905. He contributed by learning the tightrope, but in 1922, desiring more control over his act, he and his brother, Herman, struck out on their own. They hired two other performers, Joseph Geiger and Helen Kreis, the latter of whom soon became Karl Wallenda's wife, and the quartet performed around Europe, where they were noticed by Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus. For their first U.S. performance at Madison Square Garden in 1928, they were forced to perform without a safety net, as it had been lost during the long transatlantic voyage. From then on, walking without a net became their thing. By the '60s, the family affair had grown to include many more spouses and children.

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The Flying Wallendas, circa 1965. (Florida Memory/Wikimedia Commons)

The Flying Wallendas' Deadly Accident

In the early '60s, Karl Wallenda created a unique and heart-stopping stunt: the seven-person chair pyramid. For this stunt, four tightrope walkers were positioned on the tightrope with balance bars while two others balanced on the bars above them and the final walker balanced on a chair on a bar between the two middle walkers. All seven performers were connected to each other, and it was imperative that they all remain in sync. Otherwise, the pyramid would topple.

On January 30, 1962, the worst came to pass. While performing their signature stunt for the Shrine Circus at Detroit's State Fair Coliseum, the lead man on the wire—Karl Wallenda's nephew, Dieter Schepp—made a misstep that caused the entire pyramid to collapse as an audience of nearly 7,000 watched in horror. Four crashed to the ground: Schepp and Karl Wallenda's son-in-law, Richard Faughtnan, who both died on impact; Karl's son, Mario, who was permanently paralyzed from the waist down; and Karl himself, who suffered a broken pelvis.

Schepp's sister, Jana, who was in the chair at the top of the pyramid, managed to grab the wire as she fell and held on for dear life while people on the ground grabbed a net and positioned themselves beneath her, after which she dropped safely but bounced out of the net and injured her head. Two other family members survived the incident uninjured, and one of them even remained standing on the wire throughout the whole ordeal. In a real display of the necessity of the show going on, the surviving members of the Flying Wallendas performed again in the same venue the very next day.